Walking to Work: Why a Neighborhood Plan is the Only Sustaining Approach
A SAND Editorial originally published in Banker and Tradesman 8/30/99
When the Boston Redevelopment Authority released its first draft of the South Boston Seaport District Master Plan in November of 1997, the word "neighborhood" was notably absent with regard to the evolution of the South Boston waterfront.
City Hall had heard from eager developers and suburban movers and shakers looking for a new playpen of destination attractions. The waterfront was envisioned to evolve as an urban outpost populated mainly with towering offices, hotels and other large-scale commercial projects.
A public outcry quickly demanded that attention be refocused on a plan that would better reflect Boston's scale and mixed-use neighborhoods. In response, the BRA worked with community groups, consultants and political leaders in a year-long effort embodied in the March 1999 publication of the South Boston Seaport Public Realm Plan.
This document used the word "neighborhood" liberally to reflect the BRA's intent to anchor the South Boston waterfront with a strong residential component. Four thousand new units of housing are projected for construction within the next ten years, and more in years to follow.
Support for residential development in the South Boston waterfront is well-reasoned. Residents invest their lives into their community, infusing the area with character and flavor often lacking in purely commercial districts.
Especially in Boston, mixed-use neighborhoods represent the City's heart and soul - where commerce and livelihood find a place to forge forward. And, unlike areas founded on specific economies, for example those which serve tourist or office markets, Boston's urban neighborhoods have weathered decades of turbulence.
From a geographical perspective, residential development makes sense for the South Boston waterfront. Vehicular traffic is increasingly expected to be the Achilles heel of the Public Realm Plan - even considering the MBTA and Masspike systems being planned. The BTD South Boston Traffic Study has indicated that a residential buildout would create far fewer intersection failures than a buildout favoring commercial projects.
Another positive role of residential development is that it alleviates the housing stresses on other neighborhoods - notably in this case in the existing South Boston community. And with proper planning for a mix of affordabilities, housing in the waterfront could provide ownership opportunities for existing renters in the South Boston community and beyond.
Although its neighborhoods have given Boston's its "world-class" status and recognition as a wonderful place for visitors, a number of forces serve to drive the discussion away from development of a new neighborhood in the South Boston waterfront.
First and foremost, landowners and developers - many seeking to maximize a return on speculative investment within one or two economic cycles - view housing (with the exception of luxury units) as the least lucrative choice in comparison with hotel, office and retail projects. In today's economic climate, developers would never embark on the creation of Chinatown, the North End or Back Bay.
Increasingly, political leaders and the business community respond to favorable economic conditions by focusing on large-scale projects and immediate revenue-generation opportunities. Within the past three years, Boston's banking community alternatively promoted the South Boston waterfront area as a viable site for a football stadium, a baseball stadium or a vast retail megaplex.
Today, the City is moving forward with the Convention Center and approvals for thousands of hotel rooms required to support conventioneers. One of the largest holders of public property on the waterfront, Massport, has justified its market-driven development of hotels, office towers and luxury condos as as an avenue to fund less profitable port-related ventures.
If left to market forces, the South Boston waterfront would be devoid of a diverse mix of residential life - more akin to the Financial District than other areas of the City.
While some might argue that the waterfront should simply serve demand from tourist, luxury residential and office economies, there are a number of factors that weigh heavily against a free-market approach.
For example, taxpayers have financed $8 billion in waterfront infrastructure and harbor cleanup, and therefore must be able to directly benefit from its success. And while some argue that the benefits of the waterfront should be diverted to other areas, for example through linkage payments, the South Boston waterfront location itself offers priceless public resources impossible to recreate elsewhere.
A neighborhood with an eclectic mix of residents, hotels, offices and public accomodation would - as it has proven elsewhere - serve the City's long-term interest on the waterfront.
Other forces oppose residential development in the waterfront - and for due cause. For instance, the South Boston Marine Industrial Park contains an invaluable base of businesses and jobs which rely on heavy truck access to the highway system.
New residents - especially those who have paid for luxury accomodations, complain about truck noise and congestion that was present but never attracted their attention on the date of purchase.
And in the existing South Boston community, record demand for housing (and escalating rental prices) has created a widespread fear that new residents in the waterfront will cause a shift of political power - thereby eliminating hopes of generational stability.
Some of these conditions could be addressed and improved. For example, while the entire waterfront must remain open to trucking, dedicated truck routes to connect the Marine Industrial Park with the highway system would serve as a path of least resistance, appealing to truckers while serving to bypass residential developments in the Fort Point district and inner harbor.
The South Boston community, discouraged that residential development in the waterfront creates an unwanted shift in demographics, could be engaged to participate in the creation and occupancy of new housing throughout the waterfront.
Without support for the creation of waterfront residential developments, the existing South Boston community will continue to be displaced due to the influx of upper-income home buyers.
Of all obstacles, politics is the most devisive force acting against "neighborhood" creation in the South Boston waterfront. Because Boston is one of the only major Cities without an urban planning agency to balance the visions of economic planners, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has taken on both roles.
Left without a strong public planning arm to balance economic interests, the City fosters a political culture that encourages over-development in order to reap the rewards garnered through selling variances in the zoning code.
Developers are routinely allowed to vary from proscribed zoning by presenting the City with an off-site benefits package. Traditionally, exceptions to zoning (officially deemed "Planned Development Areas" or PDA's) were uncommon - today variances are recommended and approved for nearly every new project.
Consider that neighborhoods require zoning and planning for a mix of affordabilities. In the past, tight City ordinances on unit sizes, views, access and other living factors contributed to the creation of housing for a diverse economic mix.
In the South Boston waterfront, however, all residential projects underway or proposed are luxury condos and pricy rental units - despite the fact that a neighborhood exclusively comprised of upscale apartments has rarely, if ever flourished.
Even more devastating to the future of this district, the majority of affordable housing units and monetary benefits negotiated in exchange for South Boston waterfront variances are being directed far from the waterfront. And even the market prices of the few affordable units proposed on-site are being artificially inflated by the City of Boston to create secondary benefits elsewhere.
The complex culture of Boston politics, economics and planning have created an unpredictable environment - especially for existing residents, landowners and the development community.
Recognizing Boston's historical success with neighborhoods rather than the fanciful visions of "New Boston" prognosticators, the planning of a South Boston waterfront community could help stabilize growth and serve as a most incredible legacy.
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