The condominium projec t that the Cronin Group LLC wants to build along the South Boston Waterfront is a little unusual and not just for its wavy design inspired by billowing sails.
The proposed project at 150 Seaport Blvd. would replace the Whiskey Priest and American Beer Garden restaurants now perched at the edge of Boston Harbor with about 110 new condo units plus an expanded Harborwalk that would be built on pilings over the water.
The existing property is so small that to redevelop it in the face of height limits, setback requirements, and other existing legal restrictions developer Jon Cronin needs a lot of help from city regulators. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is in the process of revising its official harbor development plan so 150 Seaport can clear Chapter 91, a complex state law that protects public access to waterfront areas. The BRA also intends to set up a special zoning district to accommodate Cronin's project.
If built, 150 Seaport likely would improve upon the status quo. But it epitomizes the kind of parcel-by-parcel approach to development that Mayor Marty Walsh and his administration were supposed to be weaning the city off of. A city where exceptions are routine isn't about to start following rules in the middle of the biggest building boom in recent memory.
The Barr Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropy that's become increasingly assertive on mobility and climate-change issues, recently announced grants to help the BRA and two other organizations think more deeply about waterfront planning. That work, alas, won't be complete for some time.
From West Roxbury to the harbor, in reasonable cases and in potentially problematic ones, developers are seeking relief from land-use rules and other limits. Existing zoning in Boston was designed to be restrictive — partly out of fears of new development and partly to give the city leverage over builders — but the current rules haven't always kept up with the times. "Some of the zoning laws we have in certain areas are old and antiquated, and some are more new, and there's really no consistency when it comes to zoning in the city," Walsh said in a brief interview this past week.
In Boston right now, people are doing a lot of planning to prepare for future planning. Imagine Boston 2030, the master planning effort that Walsh announced to much fanfare last year, has turned out to be a bigger, gauzier exercise than typical urban land-use schemes and may not yield new zoning maps anytime soon. The city is designating certain areas, such as Dorchester Avenue in South Boston, as growth zones. Yet those efforts leave out some neighborhoods, such as the Seaport, where the demand for new development is greatest.
Projects like 150 Seaport raise some awkward questions for Walsh, the BRA, and everyone — including me — who believes the letter of current land-use regulations ends up stifling development that a growing city needs. If the rules on the books are unworkable, and getting them fixed will take years, how far should Boston stretch them in the meantime? Is there some consistent informal yardstick, some limiting principle, that the city should still apply?
I asked the mayor if there was some outer boundary for what his administration might approve.
"We look at these projects, and the BRA looks at these projects, and the city looks at these projects kind of individually," he said. Meanwhile, officials at the BRA contend there's nothing unusual about 150 Seaport to begin with; the agency is handling development in the area as it always has.
If so, that's the deeper problem. Until the city has more workable land-use rules, it needs a clearer, more explicit theory to justify the exceptions that it grants. Personally, I'd argue that, in deciding how much leeway to grant developers, the city should be dovish on height and density, assiduous about promoting attractive design and climate-change readiness, and hawkish about lively street life, retail diversity, and the public realm. (That's especially true in the Seaport — where there are lots of sit-down restaurants but almost nowhere to buy a pack of gum or a pair of jeans.)
By those criteria, the 150 Seaport plan deserves mixed scores. What's clear is that, for now, Boston's pursuit of more consistent development regulation looks like St. Augustine's pursuit of chastity. Give it to me — just not yet.