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Boston’s ad hoc planning doesn’t work with climate change

Near A street in South Boston, the State Street Building has a flood-protecting AquaFence set up around the exterior. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

LOOK CLOSELY at the brick sidewalk on a stretch of Congress Street along the Fort Point Channel, and you will see carvings of what look like little sails. They aren’t just decorative, though: They mark removable bricks that reveal bolts into which a storm barrier called the AquaFence can be anchored. Twice during our punishing nor’easters this winter, the owners of Atlantic Wharf (where I have an office) erected the AquaFence to prevent storm-driven floodwaters from pouring into the lobby and underground garage. It was a lot more effective than the sandbags workers wedged against the entrance to the Aquarium T station nearby, but it costs hundred of thousands of dollars.

Boston Properties willingly invested the money when it developed Atlantic Wharf, as part of a suite of climate-resilience measures that have earned the company “green star” ratings and environmental awards. But Boston Properties didn’t get a tax abatement for installing the AquaFence. Why, then, should Amazon be granted a $5 million tax break from the city of Boston for agreeing to occupy a new building in the Seaport Square development further down Congress Street, in part to offset the cost of climate resiliency measures that will be needed for the building? And what about smaller property owners or those with existing buildings that require retrofitting against Boston’s implacably rising seas? Where do they get their tax break?


The ad hoc system of private deals and negotiations that defines Boston’s development process is particularly unsuited to addressing the threats of climate change. “This is not an issue you can address one building at a time or one neighborhood at a time,” said Mike Davis, president of the architecture firm Bergmeyer and a national advocate for sustainable building practices. Even the AquaFence just pushes floodwaters down the street to become someone else’s problem.

Governor Charlie Baker earlier this month proposed a $1.4 billion bond bill to help communities plan for and mitigate the effects of climate change. But in typical fashion for a state that worships home rule, the bill emphasizes local autonomy when a regional plan is what’s required. Floodwaters don’t respect municipal boundaries.


Boston also has thought hard about extreme weather events, with “climate-ready” plans for the whole city as well as specific neighborhoods. The first tangible proposals include installing a seven-foot high portable floodgate in East Boston and raising Main Street in Charlestown by an average of two feet. But the city offers only guidelines to developers for sustainable building practices, not binding requirements. That’s especially glaring in the Seaport District. Advocates have criticized the still evolving Seaport Square development — massive, at 7 million square feet — for its abundance of nonpermeable hardscape that will likely increase drainage and flooding troubles.

Residents and visitors alike have bemoaned the blandness of the Seaport — its wide roadways and generic, boxy structures — and Seaport Square may be the last best chance to make amends. That explains why the developers have been under pressure to squeeze in everything from civic and cultural spaces to more parks to a public library. The Seaport District will never be more than a transient playground of extravagant condos and high-end retail unless developers can find a way to greatly enhance the public realm. But, at a minimum, they shouldn’t be making climate impacts worse.


After decades of neglect, builders have turned the South Boston waterfront into the city’s hottest property. It’s now the single most expensive neighborhood to live in, beating out the Back Bay. All of that is in jeopardy. The city — indeed, the region — needs a comprehensive action plan that clearly lays out the rules and responsibilities for everyone. Otherwise, we’re back to sandbags.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.