The following e-mail notes were received at the SAND website. Many of citizen Shirley Kressel's technical points regarding the Municipal Harbor Plan echo SAND's concern.
August 1, 2000
City Council Hearing Re: Municipal Harbor Plan
I have often testified before you as president of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. However, until ABN has an opportunity to prepare detailed comments on this complicated document, I offer my personal remarks.
I am a professional landscape architect and urban designer. I have followed the MHP process closely as a designer and a concerned citizen, and have attended almost all the Advisory Committee meetings. I have also been part of the Boston Society of Architects Seaport Focus Team.
The major point is that this MHP is not a plan. It is a thinly veiled instrument of spot-zoning on behalf of private development plans on which the BRA has long collaborated. To translate the Chapter 91 State regulations, which protect public access to privately developed tidelands, into these pre-determined development plans, the BRA contrives to "demonstrate" that the MHP is in the public interest. It is not. It maximizes profiteering at the public expense, on public-trust tideland where $20 billion public tax dollars create development value
HEIGHT: The Waterways Regulations require that a MHP with height substitutions keep buildings "relatively modest in size," to maintain an enjoyable ground-level environment. To justify allowing the developer to build higher than Chapter 91 allows, the BRA has rearranged the number of square feet of building that would be allowed under Chapter 91 into more profitable building envelopes. By saying that it has conformed with Ch 91 "massing," (i.e., volume), the BRA purports to be allowing the same "intensity" that Ch 91 allows. This dodges the intent of Chapter 91, which doesn't set standards for "massing" or "intensity" or density or FAR--only for height, because that's what determines shadow on the open spaces. The BRA has created a false calculation, and uses it to evade Chapter 91. Another BRA sleight-of-hand defines building height as the average of the base and the tower (p. 140), so that the promised 150' maximum can be technically achieved and still build towers double the height with half-acre floor-plates. Imagine the wonderful city we could build if only this mathematical creativity were put to use on behalf of the public instead of private developers.
The BRA insists that maximum density is required in order to build a 24-hour neighborhood. But land use, not density, creates neighborhood vitality. A high proportion of residential use, diversity of the residential population, and locally-oriented retail, together with community institutions such as schools, libraries, churches, playgrounds and community centers, are the elements of neighborhood. The Financial District is the densest in Boston, about FAR 10, and is a 9-5 zone, dead after work hours. On the other hand, the Back Bay, one "vibrant neighborhood," is only about FAR 4. And even the BRA's required 30% in residential use, if the starting price is $250/sq ft, will accommodate a very narrow demographic group. The BRA's equation of "density" and "neighborhood" does not hold. I have asked Linda Haar, the BRA's Planning Director, to document the land use and demographics of Boston's neighborhoods, for guidance in creating the critical mass of neighborhood ingredients; she has refused. If we had an impartial planning agency in Boston, separate from the development function, this kind of modeling could be done routinely; instead, the BRA has spent its time and expensive technologies modeling the maximum square footage that could be squeezed onto the waterfront. I will spend some time doing this research on my own-but this kind of work shouldn't have to be done by the citizens.
WATER-DEPENDENT USE ZONE SETBACK: Perhaps the most important protection of Chapter 91 is the Water-Dependent Use Zone setback, since that is the quintessential protection of physical public access to the water's edge. Uses in this no-build Zone must be specifically dependent on water proximity. The MHP has "reconfigured" the WDUZ, so that the only place for gathering is at the outer curve of the Fan Pier-and a third of it is roadway, as is most of the narrowed cove edge. Smaller setbacks along the cove, which obviously benefit the developer, are presented as a deliberate means to "bring ground-floor public uses closer to the water's edge and create stronger connections between interior public spaces, the waterfront and the watersheet" (p 147). I submit that what we want to bring closer to the water's edge is the multitude of people who own it, in generous, free and open space. The corner near Pier 4, which could be a generous square of parkland under Ch 91, is entirely occupied by the private Institute of Contemporary Art, which precludes outdoor gathering while it provides an offset for excessive height and costs the developer nothing in buildable land. The ICA is a cultural use, but it is not water-dependent, and should not occupy this unique place. If the developers want to donate space for a museum, they should be required to give their own space, not the public's setback.
For the excess shadow cast on the waterside public realm by its excess heights, the MHP requires "offsets," or compensations, to be determined during project-specific Article 80 review, which puts the determination into the hands of the BRA again. Allowed offsets include additional open space (in places chosen by the developer), civic uses (ICA), "four-season rooms" (lobbies), upper floor "active" facilities of public accommodation (more valuable commercial space), piers and docks (new "land" covering the water sheet), and private subsidy of water transit (which should be a public service) and tourist attractions (better for commercial than neighborhood life). These are all things that generally benefit the developer more than the public, and, I believe, do not substitute for the unique value of open, sunny land at the harbor's edge. The notion that fundamental public rights can be traded away at the discretion of the developer (or the BRA, which is the developer's advocate) does not promote the public interest. The BRA sets the tone for planning by trade-off, and it distorts the standards for good urban fabric while it corrupts the process itself. I believe strongly that if the City wants to provide public goods - housing, parks, transportation - it should pay for them publicly, and hold firm to its planning principles. I asked Planning Director Haar to calculate the tax revenues that would come in from Ch. 91-conforming waterfront developments, to show how much money we would have every year for public use, without trade-offs that harm the urban fabric; this, too, she refused to do. The Fan Pier DEIR states $25 million per year; at the BSA's build-out, we'd get about 2/3 of that; $17 million a year in taxes from just this project will buy a lot of public goods and services, and give us all of our Chapter 91 protections. We shouldn't be using linkage and benefits as a lure to get public acceptance of development that would not stand on its own merits.
While Chapter 91 addresses physical access, the BRA should address social access. It is important to realize that there will be NO public space at all on the waterfront; it is all PRIVATE space, open perforce to the public at the grace of the developers. (The BRA dismissed the notion of eminent domain land takings from private owners--land where nothing exists now--for parkland and streets, which are truly public purposes, on the waterfront, before it inflated the price by this zoning; but it is eager to take private land, hosting thriving businesses, and worth a great deal, for private stadium development in the Fenway.) Thus, the waterfront will be the privately patrolled front yard of private condo and office owners, who will, no matter what the covenants say now, guard their property values by deciding who may enter. The entire waterfront will be a gated community.
BOSTON'S PLANNING STRUCTURE: More important than the specifics of the MHP is the process for planning in Boston. The City Council is marginalized by the planning process, which is subordinated to development and kept closely in hand by the BRA. The Council has had no input during the deliberations, and has no specific jurisdiction at this point.
We need impartial planning and regulation based on principles of environmental sustainability and social equity. We need a check-and-balance system of authority in planning for our future. We will never have these until planning responsibility for Boston's future is removed from the BRA, which has a widely recognized conflict of interest. A separate planning entity must be created-actually, re-created, as it was before the BRA took over the Planning Board in an "emergency" law of l960. Most important, this planning must be accountable to the City Council as well as the Mayor.
Unfortunately, the BRA's request for a $750,000 planning allocation was just granted in your budget approval, as well as an equal amount in operating expenses. With this vote, you have given the BRA further power to evade your oversight, and to perpetuate itself long after its reason for being --the "blight" targeted by urban renewal-is gone. The City Council must change the planning structure, so you can exercise your power on behalf of your constituents.
Shirley Kressel Landscape Architect
Your comments as a visitor to the SAND website would be appreciated and forwarded for discussion.