If you want to understand why the Seaport District feels soulless and off-kilter, try looking at it from a distance — specifically from Foster’s Rotunda, a little-used public observation area located across Boston Harbor in the celebrated Rowes Wharf building.
From that ninth-floor vantage point, two problems are evident. First, the Seaport looks like a half-finished construction zone. Time should fix that.
But there's a far trickier problem, which Foster's Rotunda itself exemplifies.
To develop a real civic and cultural life, the Seaport needs more than blocky residential and office buildings. The 20,000 residents it's projected to have by 2035 will want schools, parks, public facilities, an arts scene, and the kind of oddball attractions that are hard to foresee in advance. Yet the burden of reserving space for such things in the Seaport and the adjacent Fort Point area has fallen — by default — upon Chapter 91, the state law that wrangles a few snippets of public space out of developers.
Foster's Rotunda, a bizarre space created in the late '80s under similar auspices, shows the difficulty of turning legally required amenities into genuine public assets.
State and local rules have long pushed developers to offer open passage to waterfronts and include indoor spaces that anybody — not just authorized occupants of private offices and homes — can walk into. Foster's Rotunda, alas, bespeaks a grudging compliance with such mandates.
I went there recently with Steve Hollinger, a Fort Point artist and inventor who's adamant about civic space. You can only visit from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, according to a low-key sign in the lobby. While there are great views of Boston — the Greenway as well as the harbor — the overall vibe says North Korea; a minder escorted us up. Predictably, almost nobody bothers.
"A ridiculous public space," says Jerold Kayden, a Harvard Graduate School of Design professor who's studied the parks and other spots that private owners contribute to the civic realm. So complete is the rotunda's failure that it's going to be taken out of public use, in exchange for a new, still undetermined public use space on the ground level of Rowes Wharf.
This is sad, but it's not fatal for the surrounding area, which grows livelier as the Greenway comes into its own. Most other Boston neighborhoods, meanwhile, developed through countless separate land arrangements, any one of which can go a little awry without harming the overall neighborhood.
For the Seaport, there's far less room for error. Because a handful of private developers are building the area from scratch, entire blocks at a time, every structure that goes up has an outsize effect on the whole. The City of Boston owns little land there, so most civic amenities will likely come from spaces to be carved out of big projects under Chapter 91.
The now iconic Institute of Contemporary Art building, situated on land provided by developers, shows how the law can work. And when the Boston Redevelopment Authority solicited proposals for civic space in a new building on Pier 4 earlier this year, it became clear lots of arts groups are interested in the area.
Plans for yet-to-be-built civic spaces nearby, however, are in disarray. A community process in the early 2000s designated parts of future buildings for use by the New England Aquarium, Children's Museum, and Boston Harbor Island Alliance.
But as years passed, the Seaport languished, and those organizations pursued other projects. When Seaport construction suddenly took off, there wasn't much planning for the civic spaces. In the last year, everything got shuffled around, as the city, the state, and developer Fallon Co. sought to accommodate an ICA proposal to occupy space in a new building next door. Then, a month ago, the ICA backed out.
The museum, the aquarium, and the alliance are in no rush to get hold of space in Fan Pier. In fairness, it's hard to plan areas whose configuration and construction schedule are subject to change. In the current flux, they should decide if they want out — and let the mayor's office and the BRA seek other groups that could put the space to productive use.
Hollinger, the Fort Point activist, remains optimistic about the rapidly changing area. "It's maybe 50 percent built out," he says. "But we can kick ass going forward if people grab onto this [issue]." The city, and the general public, should accept that challenge. The Seaport needs life, not another Foster's Rotunda.