AFTER A LABORIOUS three-year process, the City of Boston is nearing final approval of its big development plan for the downtown waterfront. At its heart lies the fate of the controversial Harbor Garage site, where owner and developer Don Chiofaro has tried for almost a decade to build a huge new tower. Located next to the New England Aquarium, the seven-story parking garage is an eyesore, and the long-awaited rezoning should allow something better to take its place.
Chiofaro began his quest at the garage in 2009, when he proposed a project with two towers and 1.5 million square feet of commercial space. Neighbors, in particular the Aquarium and residents of the adjacent Boston Harbor Towers, pushed back. Redeveloping the garage site would involve putting parking spaces for Aquarium visitors and tower residents underground.
Never a favorite of the late Mayor Tom Menino, Chiofaro was hoping to make progress with a new administration. Last year, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (since renamed the Boston Planning and Development Agency) proposed zoning that would allow for 900,000 square feet at the site and a 600-foot-building. Although the size was smaller than his original vision, Chiofaro now welcomes those guidelines.
“We’re in 100 percent,” said Chiofaro. “But the only limitation is . . . we have to have a project that’s operationally and financially feasible.”
Big architecture and an attractive waterfront can go hand-in-hand. The New England Aquarium, for one, has recognized the opportunity. Aquarium officials recently unveiled the Blueway, a pragmatic vision to create a compelling public space that also happens to align with Chiofaro’s plans. After years of resistance to Chiofaro, the Aquarium’s new proposal represents a real breakthrough. As a pioneer on the waterfront, and an iconic tourist destination, with more than 1.3 million visitors a year, the Aquarium is an important stakeholder. The Blueway involves creating a park that would extend the Greenway to the waterfront, expanding the Aquarium, and moving the IMAX theater. T he Aquarium seems to realize this is a chance to develop the area while promoting access to the waterfront.
Not so fast, say the remaining critics, including the residents of the 400-foot Harbor Towers. As legal abutters to the garage, the occupants of the twin residential buildings have a clear interest in what rises in its place. But they’ve been against almost every plan that Chiofaro has submitted. The arguments are not substantive enough to stop sensible development — they cite view corridors, bad precedent (opening the door for more towers to come to the waterfront), the scale and scope of Chiofaro’s construction, etc. And the wider public, which spent billions cleaning up the Harbor and taking down the Central Artery, has an interest here too. Economic growth on the waterfront is one of the payoffs from years of public investment in making the Greenway a more inviting neighborhood.
Chiofaro, who has not yet submitted a specific new building design, will still face obstacles, including obtaining state approval under Chapter 91, which governs waterfront development. Authorities should keep a close eye on his plans, but he’s on the right track. As it’s shaping up, the Municipal Harbor Plan contains a good set of rezoning rules for the downtown waterfront, and the board of the Boston Planning and Development Agency should approve it. Now that both the developer and the Aquarium are in sync, it’s time for the project to move forward.