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Something fishy is going on at the harbor

Don Chiofaro has proposed a tower at the site of the Harbor Garage.David L Ryan/ Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WorriES about building height, shadows, and green space are so old Boston.

The green of money sets the terms for today’s hot real estate market, demonstrated yet again by ongoing private talks between developer Don Chiofaro and the New England Aquarium.

With former governor Bill Weld representing the aquarium, the two parties are negotiating an agreement that would compensate the aquarium for lost business during construction of a tower Chiofaro has been trying for years to build on the neighboring Boston Harbor Garage. If Chiofaro pays the aquarium what it wants, the aquarium will go along with what Chiofaro wants. What they decide behind closed doors holds huge consequences for the future look of the waterfront and for public access to it.


During a recent meeting with the Globe editorial board, Weld predicted “a very happy ending.” He said he’s having “a great time” dealing with old college buddy Chiofaro, and has concluded that “what’s good for Don Chiofaro is not necessarily bad for us.” By “us,” Weld means the aquarium, not the public. Aquarium officials also said the project is going forward because “the mayor wants this project.” Chiofaro declined comment.

The land in question falls under the protection of Chapter 91, the state law that protects public access to the waterfront. It restricts building height and mandates a minimum of 50 percent open space on redeveloped land. The City of Boston has already decided to allow Chiofaro to blow past the 150-foot limit to a building height of 600 feet and also paved the way for the possibility of less than a 50 percent open space commitment on the garage site. R.J. Lyman — who once worked in the Weld administration as the environmental policy official charged with enforcing Chapter 91 and now works with Weld at ML Strategies — played a part in negotiating the final deal with the city. It was done without input from the Wharf District Council, which represents property owners along the waterfront, said Suzanne Lavoie, the group’s executive director.


All that’s left is for the state to give its blessing. Technically that decision falls to Matthew Beaton, the environmental affairs secretary. But in reality, it belongs to Governor Charlie Baker, who long ago worked for Weld and is now being romanced by Chiofaro.

Just like one downtown building exempted from the city’s shadow law, one waterfront building exempted from Chapter 91 protections could launch a row of competing skyscrapers that will forever change Boston’s skyline and maritime profile. Unhip as it sounds to write that – it’s true.

Through investment in the Big Dig and Boston Harbor cleanup, the public has already spent billions to improve the waterfront, said Peter Shelley, senior counsel to the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. To maximize their waterfront investment, the people have to be able to get to it. Instead, the city, in concert with the state, is looking to privatize the waterfront with high-end luxury developments — “capturing the public value that has been created and not paying adequate compensation for that privilege,” said Shelley. If the state gives the Chiofaro project the go-ahead, Shelly said the CLF will go to court to try to stop it.

Is that just more old-fashioned, antidevelopment thinking? Not if you treasure the waterfront as a special place that connects Boston to its maritime history. Not if you think the waterfront should be a thriving destination for all. Not if you believe what happens on the site of an admittedly ugly garage will set the tone for waterfront development for the next 50 years.


Change happens, but before it does, everyone should know the full story of what’s happening and why. That’s not stodgy thinking, that’s smart planning.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.