This story ran on page 26 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.


Making it livable

THE RECENT CITY-state agreement on the Fan Pier was greeted with cheers from most of those involved - for good reason. The deal shows that big projects can be approved here - that the knock on Boston as a Death Valley for developers is a bad rap.

Equally important for the future of the city, the agreement opens the way for the full development of the South Boston Waterfront. This will take decades, and Fan Pier developers must obtain city and state permits before construction begins. It is not too early for the Boston Redevelopment Authority to begin sustained planning to knit together the projects closest to the water and to address long-term challenges to the livability of the entire district.

The biggest of these will be the creation of thousands of apartments needed to transform an area of warehouses and semi-abandoned factories into an exciting, 24-hour urban neighborhood. Housing - including affordable units - will provide the base of residents needed to give the area the feel of a grittier South End or Back Bay, rather than the desolate aura of the Financial District late at night.

The short-term problem will be contentious, but solvable. Three developers - the Pritzker family on the Fan Pier, Stephen Karp on Pier 4, and Frank McCourt on the landward side of Old Northern Avenue - will have to coordinate their work so that the projects enhance the common goal of encouraging people to visit and enjoy the waterfront.

McCourt deserves much credit for presenting an alternative plan for the waterfront that galvanized advocates who sensed that the Pritzker and Karp proposals would be too dense and private. A large open space at the foot of Fan Pier cove was a major component of McCourt's plan, and it became one of the key elements of the city-state agreement.

McCourt presented two proposals to the BRA, one much denser and taller than the other. The BRA ought to take the best of both plans and make sure McCourt's buildings work in harmony with the Pritzker and Karp buildings on the waterfront. As McCourt suggests, the open space at Fan Pier cove ought to be continued across old Northern Avenue. It would then provide a clear connection between the cove and an MBTA station to be built at the end of McCourt's property.

The BRA is concerned that McCourt's plan to build retail space in the MBTA station underground will add nothing to the goal of enlivening the area's streetscape. McCourt seems willing to negotiate. ''We're happy to talk about some alternatives,'' says McCourt spokesman Charles Kenney.

The Pritzkers, who share the Fan Pier with the federal courthouse, need to work closely with government administrators seeking to revitalize the park in front of that building. Public amenities will be more effective if they are cooperatively planned.

Mayor Menino has set a goal of 4,000 units of housing to be built in the 1,000-acre waterfront district by 2008. The Pritzkers and Karp are committed to 800 units between them, and McCourt will probably yield 600. (Five hundred more are expected to be generated if he builds on another parcel under his control.)

In addition, Cathartes Investments wants to build 565 near the convention center, developer Joseph Fallon plans 490 near the World Trade Center, and Beacon Capital Partners are building 120 condominiums near the Gillette factory on Fort Point Channel. These all add up to 3,075, short of the mayor's goal.

Even his 4,000 figure may not be enough to bring the district to life. Boston architect Joan Goody estimates that it would take 6,000 units just in the area north of Summer Street to match the residential density of the Back Bay, a successful urban district. ''It takes that many people to support the kinds of services - food stores, shoe repairs - to give it a sense of neighborhood,'' she said.

The waterfront area faces a further challenge because its transportation network, even with the new Silver Line busway now under construction, will not match that of the Back Bay or downtown. Housing spreads out the transportation burden better than a build-out that relies chiefly on office buildings.

The BRA hopes that thousands of units will eventually go in the Wormwood Street area, near the Gillette factory. Yet the manufacturer sued when Beacon Capital tried to convert two office buildings into the 120 condominiums. Gillette was worried that residents would object to truck traffic, which is essential to its business.

The company was not satisfied with a clause in the condo sales agreement that committed residents to accept the trucks. As part of a deal with Beacon to drop the suit, the developer specified that any further housing construction would have to gain the prior approval of Gillette. So a massive development Beacon hopes to build on Midway Street would contain 1.7 million square feet of office space, with just 7 percent reserved for artists' work space and living quarters.

Gillette says it is not opposed to housing as such. This will be tested by a master-planning process for the Fort Point Channel area it is about to undertake with the BRA. The city and state together ought to build a connection to the haul road in South Boston, so that trucks can use this limited-access highway instead of more congested streets. In exchange, Gillette should be more cooperative on housing issues.

A few blocks away, where Gillette has no interests, another lawsuit threatens the Cathartes project. The trouble here stems from Mayor Menino's decision to void a linkage agreement with the South Boston Betterment Trust.

It was sensible for Menino to do that. The $65 million to be generated in fees from the developers and used for subsidized housing ought to be spread around the city more fairly than under the trust arrangement, which the mayor negotiated hastily to facilitate City Council approval of the convention center.

However, the lawsuit would be better settled by mediation, as a Superior Court judge suggested, rather than a protracted legal battle. Unfortunately, BRA Director Mark Maloney is resisting. ''We're not going to go into mediation,'' he says. ''I don't anticipate losing that case.'' The city's housing goals will be difficult to meet unless this matter is solved expeditiously.

Housing. Transportation. Coordinated development that produces a thriving new neighborhood out of pieces that work together. These are the challenges for the 1,000 acres in South Boston anchored by the Fan Pier.

Because these hurdles are high, the success of the Fan Pier negotiators in reaching agreement is a hopeful sign - one that resonated among Boston business leaders, including those not directly involved.

''This was a huge step forward,'' says Wayne Budd, executive vice president and general counsel of John Hancock Financial Services. Budd said the lengthy talks with many parties proved fruitful in the end. ''It shows that this is a city that wants to do things - to do things the right way - but that can get them done.'' Budd points to the approval of the convention center and the success in keeping the Patriots from moving to Connecticut as other recent evidence that Boston can accomplish significant goals when it works issues through.

Jim Klocke, director of governmental affairs for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, credits the governor and mayor with providing leadership, but adds that an array of advocates made major contributions.

''There were a lot of different messages - a lot of different viewpoints,'' Klocke says, ''but everybody stayed at the table.'' In the end, he says, ''the process improved the product.''

Without doubt, state Environmental Affairs Secretary Bob Durand was the person most responsible for bringing all parties together. According to Hubie Jones, a special assistant to the chancellor at UMass-Boston and an advocate for public access on Fan Pier, Durand ''made it possible for everybody to be heard,'' by treating people as partners and not just pleaders.

In many ways, the Fan Pier process was typical of Boston - contentious and often-delayed, with charges of high-handedness and obstructionism hanging in the air. Yet this discordance turned out to be the harmonious sound of a community reaching agreement about a major development. In Boston, progress comes when the whole city plans its future.

This story ran on page 26 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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