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ICA plan for East Boston lifts the whole city

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) plans to renovate a condemned former copper pipe shop in East Boston.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF/FILE/Globe Staff

DEVELOPMENT IN Greater Boston is proceeding almost faster than the city can keep up with, stoking worries about haphazard growth and the vulnerability of historic neighborhoods. That’s why the Institute of Contemporary Art’s proposal for renovating a condemned industrial space on the East Boston waterfront is so cheering.

The ICA proposal calls for renovation of a former copper pipe shop, a resource of 15,000 square feet, which would complement the ICA’s stunning 2006 cantilevered building directly across the harbor. Rather than creating more white-wall gallery space, the refurbished building, to be called Watershed, would focus on “immersive,” site-specific projects — a venue for creating new art as much as exhibiting existing pieces. Also included would be a gallery focusing on the neighorhood’s history. Thus far, the plans call for seasonal operation, which could eventually expand to year-round. Admission would be free.


The proposal makes sense on a number of levels. For the ICA, an outpost in the gritty industrial shipyard, part of a rich historical community, is a no-brainer — an experimental annex for an institution that, true to its name, has always pushed the envelope of modern art. (The ICA famously exhibited controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at its previous space, in a former police station, on Boylston Street.) Feeling hemmed in by its 65,000-square-foot home, the museum has already attempted and abandoned plans to expand in its booming Seaport neighborhood.

The proposal makes sense for the city, too. The East Boston waterfront is already a harbinger of mixed-used development with an artsy edge. Various active maritime businesses still lease land from the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, which manages the site for its owner, the Massachusetts Port Authority. The shipyard, however, also hosts funky public venues like KO Pies and and the Downeast Cider House, which has giant, gleaming stainless steel brew tanks in its converted industrial space. Various temporary and permanent installations from the nonprofit HarborArts group, including wall art and sculpture, also enhance the location. But Watershed would be the first major arts venue of its kind in East Boston.


The ICA project would continue the neighborhood’s revitalization, which includes the elegant Piers Park as well as residential developments on Piers 5 and 6. (A report from the Boston Planning & Development Agency shows 2,282 residential units approved for Eastie since 2014, second only to the burgeoning South Boston Waterfront that includes the Seaport District.) Work also continues extending the East Boston Greenway, along abandoned railway lines, which it is hoped will one day connect Eastie and Winthrop.

One of the most attractive elements of the ICA’s proposal would be a seasonal water taxi between East Boston and the Seaport District — the fruition of long-deferred plans for a ferry, last proposed by Mayor Tom Menino in 2011.

East Boston has panoramic harbor and cityscape views and historic roots — as the site of a Revolutionary War fort, home to a bustling shipyard in the 19th century, and entry point for untold numbers of immigrants. But despite a Blue Line stop, it remains relatively isolated, hemmed in by Logan Airport and the harbor. Planners often talk about the importance of knitting together Boston’s varied neighborhoods. The ICA plan forges another link between East Boston and the rest of the city. City planners should give it their blessing .