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Opinion | Bradley M. Campbell and Deanna Moran

Seaport developers need to comply with the law and partner with the public

Rendering of the new headquarters General Electric plans to build along Fort Point Channel.
Rendering of the new headquarters General Electric plans to build along Fort Point Channel.Gensler Architecture/General Electric

Developers are pouring into the Boston Harbor waterfront and who can blame them: The water is clean and beautiful, and condos and office suites are going for millions. But in the rush to build, developers and city regulators are systematically shortchanging the public.

Much of this land belongs to the public, on “loan” or licensed to private developers so long as they are serving public purposes. And this land is only valuable because Massachusetts residents paid billions to clean the water, and pay hundreds of millions annually to keep it clean.

Take a walk along the South Boston Seaport and you wouldn’t know that this land is your land. Lawns are plush but uninviting. They look private — not the kind of place you would unpack a picnic basket with your children. And that’s wrong.

Three decades ago, the Conservation Law Foundation filed the federal lawsuit that helped create this newly-valuable waterfront. Now, CLF is engaged in lawsuits with a simple goal: Prevent developers from walling the water off from those who paid to clean it, and who own it.

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Litigation does not have to be the answer. In fact, there is a simple way for developers to avoid the expense and uncertainties of a lawsuit: Comply with the law and partner with the public, to whom these lands belong as well. Take advantage of the public investments to build inviting new buildings that don’t implicitly exclude the public. Build destination open spaces and develop programs that welcome the public.

Developers who don’t get this have a high-profile role model to look to. General Electric’s plans for a 12-story South Boston Seaport world headquarters may be the template for balancing public and private interests on the waterfront.

GE, working with Mass Development, purchased extra land to be certain that a generous amount of the parcel is open to the public. GE has committed to making the outdoor space inviting, with kayak rentals, walking trails, and a dock – open to all. It is crucial to note that GE has built in a way that, unlike many of the proposed Seaport towers, won’t wall off views and privatize the waterfront.

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GE engaged community groups and public partners to ensure that its project not only complies with the law but also shows an authentic desire to protect public space and provide access. And they showed they understand what climate change will bring. Other Seaport developers have been ignoring an inconvenient truth — tides are rising, and what seems safe today won’t be in the future. Already, employees of one Seaport tower know they need to bring boots to work during “king tides.”

Instead of taking the traditional approach of using historical flooding as a basis for site design, GE used future projections to determine the height they needed to raise their site to accommodate sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme precipitation. And they are raising the Harborwalk to be sure it continues to provide public access to the water.

To prepare for increases in precipitation and nuisance flooding, GE is using native plantings to capture storm water that might otherwise run to the harbor or flood buildings and public spaces. Finally, instead of seeking an extended 99-year Waterways License (the default for Boston developers), GE opted for a 42-year license, clearly seeing that climate change will require a hard look at current uses four decades from now.

To engage the public and protect Greater Boston from climate change, a vibrant harbor needs to prioritize marshes and other natural features that create a buffer against higher tides and storms. Waterfront parks can do the same, while providing new recreation space.

In recognizing the public’s interest in the waterfront, GE will have shovels in the ground and will create construction and permanent jobs the city needs in record time, while building headquarters that will survive the next storm. By contrast, developers who placed their bets on sweetheart deals with the city that cheat the public realm are seeing their projects — and jobs that come with them — mired in litigation and controversy.

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By respecting both the public and rising waters, Boston can have the world-class and resilient waterfront it deserves while getting a full return — in jobs, tax revenue, and economic growth — on its clean water investments.


Bradley M. Campbell is president of Conservation Law Foundation. Deanna Moran is director of environmental planning at Conservation Law Foundation.