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Old vs. new Seaport needs public debate

The complex that houses the Bronstein Center and the Boston Design Center sits on a fault line separating Boston’s industrial past from its future. Here, along the eastern tip of the Seaport, the law protects the industrial port, but the new economy has money and momentum on its side.

The investors behind the Bronstein and Design centers want to shift the most prominent building in Boston's working port into the city's tech-centric future. The questions around how, or whether, these two forces could coexist are thorny, difficult policy matters. So it's a testament to the way development in Boston works that, when confronted with these thorny issues, City Hall's first instinct was to make an end-run around them.

The Bronstein Center and the Design Center are two portions of a massive city-owned building sitting at the far edge of the Seaport. The building, a former Army shipping depot spanning several city blocks, is one of the last remnants of Boston's old industrial port. It is surrounded by heavy trucking, shipping, and active piers, and it's supposed to be a bulwark against the disappearance of blue-collar jobs from Boston's waterfront.


The rest of the old industrial Seaport has given way to luxury apartments, offices, and high-end restaurants. This corner of town, the Marine Industrial Park, recognizes that there are still pockets of the economy that don't lunch at Morton's. The industrial park makes beer and processes fish. Cruise ships dock next to the Bronstein, the old Army depot that was recently rebranded as the Innovation and Design building.

The Bronstein got its new name when it became the home of MassChallenge. The startup accelerator anchors Boston's Innovation District. Jamestown Properties, the developer that took over the Bronstein and Design Center this year, hopes MassChallenge will draw scores of cutting-edge firms to a building that's now largely vacant. To make it happen, the developer wants to change its lease and convert 500,000 square feet of empty industrial space to commercial.

The Innovation District is now in danger of pricing small-scale companies out of the neighborhood. Jamestown wants to turn the Bronstein into a funky, affordable place where printers, clothing designers, and furniture makers work next to software developers, biotech researchers, and architects.


It's not clear, though, that the Innovation District's next wave can coexist alongside the working port. On the street level, physical constraints on everything from traffic to dumpsters and loading docks could mean that there just isn't enough room along the waterfront for port workers and several thousand new economy types. Jamestown's building backs onto Massport's rapidly growing Black Falcon Cruise Terminal; what should be the Bronstein's service alley is a roadway that's critical to moving Boston's cruise passengers on and off of their boats. And on a policy level, the Marine Industrial Park exists because a purely free real estate market would swallow blue collar employment hubs.

If the two sectors can work together, it will only be after serious coordination, and hard conversations about what industry means in the 21st century. That hasn't happened yet.

Jamestown needs city development permits to reconfigure the Bronstein and the Design Center. It wants to modify and extend its leases with the city. The developer also needs to win over state environmental regulators, who won't allow Jamestown's proposed industrial-to-commercial conversion unless the developer can show that its project won't impact maritime industry. This means winning over its manufacturer neighbors, and the cruise operator, Massport.

Normally, a developer would file for development permits, hash out its plans in public, and then formalize the terms it had agreed to in a new lease. The Boston Redevelopment Authority ran the Bronstein process backwards. It asked for blanket approvals to extend Jamestown's leases, before the terms of those leases were public, and before there would be any public discussion around how the project would fit into the larger industrial neighborhood. This is BRA development trumping BRA planning at its most egregious.


After initially appearing to be fast-tracked, Jamestown's lease approvals disappeared from last week's BRA board agenda. Flurries of skeptical phone calls tend to have that effect. BRA officials now say the Bronstein project will be incoming mayor Marty Walsh's to sort out. How can Boston grow both the Innovation District and the working port? It's a policy debate that should be unfolding in public, and it isn't yet.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.