This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 10/24/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

If mayor doesn't protect waterfront, who will?
By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist , 10/24/2000

This past Friday the 13th, Mayor Thomas M. Menino made a scary statement. He said that he called Governor Paul Cellucci and demanded to know why state Environmental Affairs Secretary Robert Durand is trying to regulate what happens on Boston's waterfront.

Surely, the mayor must know why.

By law - Chapter 91, to be precise - Durand is trustee of the public interest. By law, Durand's authority extends to all land 250 feet from the water's edge. By law, Durand must apply the following standards before he signs off on any waterfront development: It must serve a public purpose. It must create greater public benefits than detriments. And private advantage should not be its primary goal.

More specifically, the law requires land governed by Chapter 91 to retain public open spaces for ''active and passive recreation.'' It requires buildings that are ''relatively modest'' in height and calls for a pedestrian-friendly environment. Development must also enhance the destination value of the waterfront.

Those legal terms and conditions are the foundation for the ongoing battle over Boston's so-called Municipal Harbor Plan.

Very simply, this battle is about applying state law to a piece of land that clearly falls under the state's jurisdiction.

Very simply, it's about enforcing development decisions today that will make tomorrow's Boston more magical - or more mundane.

Very simply, if developer Nicholas Pritzker thinks the city and the state are taking too long to move along his Fan Pier development proposal, too bad.

Very simply, if the mayor thinks the state is interfering with his development legacy - too bad.

Pritzker's agenda for private gain and Menino's agenda for political advantage should not be driving this debate. Sadly, they are. And this is the saddest part: While the public can expect only so much from a Chicago-based private developer, it should be able to expect much more from a Boston mayor.

Menino sees the promise of Boston's waterfront. The self-defined ''urban mechanic'' had the vision to understand the importance of fixing potholes and something grander - fixing the waterfront. Given that, why is he selling the vision short?

The mayor was intuitive enough to grasp how much the city's future and his own place in history may be defined by what happens along this last 1,000 acres. So, why is Menino letting streets and sidewalks count as open space? Why is he standing behind proposals for buildings that at 300 feet and higher wall off the water from the people and create dangerous obstacles for airplanes? Why is he agreeing that indoor atriums in hotels or office towers are destinations that enhance the value of the waterfront to the public?

Perhaps it's due to ego - it's Menino's way or no way - and insecurity - if Pritzker packs up his Fan Pier plan and leaves town, Menino pays the political price. But a mayor's ego and insecurities should not influence a public trustee. And a governor should not let them, no matter how mad that makes the mayor.

Too often, politicians and the press use hyperbole to describe plans and events. Because of it, much political and media commentary loses its impact.

Each time we declare this a defining moment in the city's development history, we run the risk of turning the promise of Boston's waterfront into a cliche. Each time we warn of dire consequences, we sound, once again, like the boy or girl who cried wolf.

But this is a defining moment, in so many ways.

Whose interests will prevail? The property owner's, the politician's, or the public's? How will we define the public interest? As the interest of one neighborhood, one city, or one commonwealth?

Will ego - a mayor's or a developer's? - set the parameters for the new Boston? Or will those parameters be set, as they should, by the rule of law?

More outsiders own a piece of Boston than ever before. Industry by industry, power is shifting. And so it will continue, each time an outsider buys a newspaper or a baseball team, an ad agency or a bank, a department store or a developable tract of land. By definition, the new owner's interest becomes mostly bottom-line.

It is up to the people's representatives to make sure that the people's interests are not forgotten.

Mayor Menino must know that. It would be more than scary if he didn't. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it would be horrifying.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 10/24/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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