This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 5/18/2000. © Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.


A longer view of Fan Pier

Positions are hardening too fast on the future of the Fan Pier, Boston's best undeveloped waterfront site. The Menino administration has fully endorsed a revised version of the Pritzker family's development plan, while the controversial Frank McCourt has doggedly pursued his own proposal for a less dense project. It is time to transcend this developers' feud and focus on what will be best for the future residents of Boston, who ought to be able to visit an accessible, welcoming waterfront district.

In response to a letter from the mayor, the Pritzkers agreed to enlarge a small park at the foot of the Fan Pier cove. While an improvement, the park would be only 43,000 square feet, much smaller than Post Office Square Park, and the changes would reduce the size of the project by less than 4 percent - from 3.3 million to 3.175 million square feet.

Mark Maloney, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, insisted this week that this is the Pritzkers' last, best offer. He contends that the developers need this high level of density to pay for the underground parking and other infrastructure the city insists they provide. Kyle Warwick, one of the Pritzkers' local representatives, said these costs will total $250 million and that without the full build-out the project could be canceled.

But other developers with no interests on the Fan Pier think the Pritzkers could make a substantial profit on a smaller project. It would be helpful if the BRA encouraged the Pritzkers to submit their confidential financial plan to further scrutiny.

It was impractical to expect the Pritzkers to become development partners with the strong-willed McCourt, who does not own a bit of the Fan Pier, and he withdrew that idea at a City Hall hearing yesterday. We also disagree with some elements of his Fan Pier design, such as the curved street layout.

However, a less dense proposal opens up possibilities that are missing from the Pritzker plan. One alternative would be to eliminate two condominium buildings proposed for the tip of the pier and replace them with space that is unambiguously public.

BRA planners argue that the pier needs density to become an active 24-hour neighborhood. But the two condominium buildings would contain 150 to 167 apartments between them. There would not be enough people there, even with retail shops on the first floor, to activate the pier. Only true public uses like parks, museums, or performance spaces would attract enough visitors to make this a vibrant public area.

With the Menino administration on the side of the Pritzker proposal, it appears that city approval is guaranteed. That leaves Robert Durand, state secretary of environmental affairs, to take a longer view. State law empowers him to protect the public's right to waterfront access.

Most crucial now is for Menino, Durand, and other key decision-makers to rise above the narrow, Pritzker versus McCourt framing of this debate and look at what sort of Fan Pier would be best for the city far into the future.

Some believe Durand has already decided to support the revised Pritzker plan. Chuck Anastas, his chief of staff, said this week that Durand is undecided. ''There's a lot of the puzzle to fill in,'' Anastas said. ''The harbor plan is key.''

The BRA is working on a Municipal Harbor Plan, which will require Durand's approval before development can proceed. In its first draft, the plan was tailor-made for the Pritzker development. Menino's support will probably ensure that the final version is similarly supportive, unless people concerned about public access to the waterfront speak out now.

They might learn a lesson from the experience of Chicago, where a waterfront park is being constructed on the site of an old rail yard. The Chicago Park will include an ice skating rink, a music pavilion for outdoor performances, two restaurants, a Great Lawn, and an underground music and dance theater for performances in cold weather.

Millennium Park is largely a government undertaking, but public-spirited Chicagoans have made contributions. The first and biggest, for $15 million to pay for the music pavilion, came from the Pritzker Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the family.

It is unreasonable to expect this type of develoment on the Fan Pier, a private project, but public officials have a responsibility to hold the Pritzkers to a higher standard of benefit than their plan now provides. The property enjoys an unusual amount of protection under state law and is made more valuable by public investments in a clean harbor. The Pritzkers, philanthropists at home, should think hard about how to temper private gain with enhanced public access for Boston.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 5/18/2000. © Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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