The following is a column on today's Boston Herald editorial page, written by Thomas M. Keane Jr., a former Boston City Councilor.

Fan Pier proposal dry-docks itself
by Thomas M. Keane Jr.

© Boston Herald Friday, March 24, 2000

There has been much talk about the Pritzker family's proposed development of Boston's Fan Pier. But wade through the words and this fact emerges: It's not going to happen any time soon. Indeed, it may never happen at all.

The reason is quite simple. The project is too tall, it quite likely violates state law and, most importantly, public interest groups with money and power are girding to do battle.

Foremost among these is the Conservation Law Foundation, which has already begun to raise money to stop the development. ``We'll pound this into the dust,'' says CLF's president Douglas Foy.

Here's a quick summary of events so far.

There are about 1,000 mostly undeveloped acres along the South Boston waterfront, adjacent to the newly built federal courthouse. With billions being spent on the harbor cleanup and the Big Dig, it is becoming increasingly clear that this site is now primed for development.

Four owners hold almost all of these 1,000 acres. They would love to build. They know they stand to make a lot of money. But because this is waterfront, and because any development will have a major effect on transportation and other infrastructure, the truth is that it is the city and the state governments - not those four owners - who ultimately control what will happen to that land.

Just a year ago, the Boston Redevelopment Authority released a master plan for the area. Called the Seaport Public Realm Plan, it marked one of those rare Boston moments when everyone seemed to agree. The plan kept heights low and envisioned the creation of a new neighborhood for Boston.

Sound familiar? To many people, it was reminiscent of a plan from two centuries ago: the one that constructed the Back Bay, literally creating, from the ground up, a new neighborhood.

Then reality intruded.

Chicago's Pritzker family, one of the four landowners, made a proposal to develop its own acreage.

The Pritzker's property, on Fan Pier, is a scant 21 acres. But Fan Pier is the most prominent and important parcel, one that everyone seems to agree will set the tenor for the kind of development that will occur over the remainder of the waterfront.

Unfortunately, the Pritzker plan was no 21st-century version of the Back Bay.

It proposed a total of seven buildings, the shortest of which was 144 feet, the tallest 298 feet.

Instead of a residential focus, the complex was to be largely commercial.

Of the 3.4 million square feet the Pritzkers wanted to build, only about a quarter was devoted to housing.

This plainly doesn't fit within the vision of the Seaport Public Realm plan. That being so, it should be a nonstarter, right?


In Boston, it seems, we just change the master plan.

The BRA just released a draft of its new ``Municipal Harbor Plan'' and - surprise! surprise! - it seems to sign off on much of what the Pritzkers want. Instead of the Back Bay, we'll get another financial district: tall buildings, big canyons, lots of shadows, and the only way you'll know you're near the water will be a faint salt smell in the air when the wind is right.

But master plans alone can't dictate what can and cannot be built. There's another factor at play - state law.

Chapter 91 of state law controls construction around waterways such as the harbor. The rules certainly seem clear-cut enough. Within 100 feet of the high water mark there is to be no construction. Heights then step up after that. At 100 feet away from the water, buildings can be 55 feet tall. At 150 feet, they can go to 80 feet, and so on.

The Pritzker plan makes mincemeat of these limits. The plan proposes a virtual wall of buildings. Indeed, buildings as tall as 236 feet are within the zone that is supposed to have no construction at all.

CLF, experienced at stopping other projects of this sort, has laid down the gauntlet. Instead of the 3.4 million square feet the Pritzker's want, CLF figures that Chapter 91's rules will allow only about 2 million square feet.

That amounts to a dramatic downsizing of the project. It will take the Pritzkers more than a few tweaks to comply with Chapter 91. It will require rethinking the whole project.

Mayor Thomas Menino could still reverse the BRA, but don't be surprised to see this end up in court. And if it does, it can drag on for a decade, something CLF's Foy says he is willing to do.

There doubtless will be many who will accuse CLF of stopping ``progress.'' Moreover, they will say, while the plan isn't perfect, it's better than building nothing at all

To the contrary.

Yes, it probably would be a shame if, in this economic cycle, the opportunity were lost to develop the barren South Boston waterfront.

But like the Back Bay, whatever is built on Fan Pier will be with us for centuries.

If it can't be done right, then it shouldn't be done at all.

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