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opinion | Mike Ross

Stuck in dry dock

Out-of-date zoning regulations are hampering innovation on Boston’s waterfront

An aerial view of Boston’s Marine Industrial Park.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

THE BOSTON Redevelopment Authority is about to begin a planning process for a key section of Boston’s waterfront. To date, the watchword has been balance — between the blue-collar jobs that come from the ocean, and those new economy jobs that do not. But saying that one job cannot exist alongside another, as the present zoning does, is a false choice, akin to saying that airplanes and birds cannot share the air. Boston’s place in the world will not be determined by balance, but rather, a bold vision for our future.

A city’s waterfront was once the last place urban planners would look to develop. Suffering from deterioration, filth, and obsolescence, the mid-20th century coastline was avoided, not embraced. In Boston, the water was so polluted, it propelled a California rock band to stardom with their one major hit, “Dirty Water,” celebrated today as a sports anthem played on the Fenway Park sound system after every victory.


But today, waterfront development is seen in a whole new light. Urban ports no longer serve solely as a place of maritime commerce. Throughout the world, from Sydney to Rotterdam, cities have reinvented themselves by way of their waterfront, with opera houses, museums, and high-end office plazas sharing space with fish processors and dock workers.

In Boston, there’s been a great seaport resurgence, first by way of a group of visionary leaders who cleaned its water, then through development that has transformed the area with new activities — from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to the Institute of Contemporary Art.

This next phase of planning focuses on the Marine Industrial Park, 200 acres in the Seaport District that have been owned and operated by the city since the closing of the Boston Army Base and Navy Annex in the mid-1970s. It juts out onto the harbor, like an arrow pointing toward Logan Airport. In a fast-developing community, another thing that stands out is its under-utilization. That’s because it’s zoned almost exclusively for industrial use, which disqualifies most of the businesses seeking to locate in the Seaport District. Despite having the thousands of jobs that come from the shipping containers, cruise ships, dry dock, and seafood processing plants, the Marine Industrial Park is still mostly empty. Its largest building, at one time the largest in America, sits just over half filled, presently restricted from leasing to traditional commercial tenants.


Within that building sits an anchor tenant, the Boston Design Center, in which credentialed designers purchase their wares from industry wholesalers. It was deemed suitable for the space because it was an adjunct of the shipping industry, marketing imported wares. But it, too, must reinvent itself, as do-it-yourself design stores like Pottery Barn have made the trade-only model unsustainable in its present form. To keep its jobs, the design center should look to places like the Miami Design District, where once-empty warehouses have been replaced with a vibrant area of commerce and culture.

The Seaport District is home to MassChallenge, a startup accelerator that helped galvanize Boston’s innovation economy. And now a stream of new businesses want into areas including the Marine Industrial Park as well: from research and development, which is now an allowed use, to technology and innovation, which is not. But sanctioning certain uses over others is not only arbitrary, its destructive. The area has room for all types of jobs, including maritime industries, which will only be growing with the planned dredging of the harbor, a $300 million infrastructure project, that will allow larger commercial vessels to reach our port.


With new-economy employers looking to grow, a changing design industry looking to evolve, and a steady increase of blue collar marine jobs destined to arrive, this next step along our waterfront is critical. State Representative Nick Collins, who represents the area and played a key role in advancing the dredging project, correctly suggested modeling the future of Boston’s seaport on that of Rotterdam — presently among the busiest in the world, yet still planning to build commercial office towers, with art and sports facilities as well. The mix of uses is precisely the idea.

Some Bostonians might be tempted to examine the new landscape of the seaport and marvel at how far we’ve come. But the city would be making a huge mistake in artificially limiting how much further we can go.

To claim our place among the great ports of the world, we simply need to let that which is already in motion continue, and not stop it with zoning laws that were intended for a different city and a different era. That will require changes to state law, and uninhibited local planning. But those changes need to go full steam ahead.

Mike Ross writes regularly. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston