This column ran in the Boston Herald on 12/15/2000.
© Copyright 2000 The Boston Herald.

A Pyrrhic victory for all at Fan Pier
by Thomas M. Keane Jr.

Is state environment chief Robert Durand's approval of Boston's Municipal Harbor Plan the big win that environmental and community groups say it is?

Arguably not. The plan that Durand approved earlier this month differed only slightly from the one on the table at the end of the summer. More importantly, the plan's approval leaves one in doubt about the biggest question of all: What kind of place are we creating in Boston's seaport district? A place to visit or a place to live?

For nearly a year, activist groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation had blocked any construction on the waterfront, warning they would sue if Durand approved the city's draft of the Municipal Harbor Plan. Under enormous pressure, the mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority revised the plan several times during the year. Still, both sides were at loggerheads, so much so that Nicholas Pritzker, owner of a key 25-acre parcel on Fan Pier, threatened in October to walk if the state did not sign off on the plan immediately.

Durand and the advocates responded with tough talk. ``Maybe (the Pritzkers) aren't the best ones to do that project,'' Durand said at the time. Meanwhile, supporters of the Pritzkers decried the activists' position, saying they were trying to make the Seaport into a goofy mimicry of a suburb.

But after an intense round of meetings, a dramatic deal was struck on Dec. 5 - an agreement to which everyone, including the advocates, signed on.

And what was that deal? Total buildout was reduced from 3.1 million square feet (the project as originally proposed had begun at 3.3 million square feet) to 2.95 million square feet, a small cut of 150,000 square feet. The amount of open space grew by 20,000 square feet. That's less than half an acre, about the size of a single-family lot in Wellesley. In addition, one building was slimmed down and moved back from the water's edge and a couple of roads were eliminated.

In truth, the changes were fairly modest. They were not, at first glance, the kinds of things that would arouse such strong passions on each side.

So what was the fight really all about?

Underlying the battle over waterfront access and open space is an entirely different issue: Is the Seaport district to become an extension of downtown Boston or will it be a new residential neighborhood? The conflict over the MHP - where each side lived or died by whether parkland increased by a few square feet - was a proxy for this much more fundamental debate.

At one time, the dream was that 8,000 to 10,000 new housing units would be built in the Seaport District. The new neighborhood, with a population of 12,000 to 15,000, would be vibrant and self-sustaining. It would become, visionaries hoped, an urban community similar to the South End, Back Bay or Beacon Hill.

It was this vision that underlay environmental and community activists' aggressive efforts to expand the amount of available open space. A neighborhood needs playgrounds, schools, ballfields and parks. That was to be the purpose of the undeveloped areas.

Of course, those who saw the Seaport as an extension of downtown found the emphasis on green space and reducing density to be misplaced. The need for open areas in a downtown environment is limited. Tourists and office workers for the most part don't use them. Indeed, in this context, too much open space creates dead zones that easily become blighted.

Instead of resolving these competing visions, the Municipal Harbor Plan gives a bit to each side. While it does allow for open space, the plan, with its dense, high buildings and its emphasis on commercial and office uses, doesn't signal the advent of the kind of neighborhood that the activists sought. Instead, only about a third of the buildout of Fan Pier will be residential space: about 800 units, housing perhaps 1,200 people.

Admittedly, Fan Pier is but a small chunk of the Seaport District. But if Fan Pier becomes the model for future development - and most people think it will - then the result will be a neighborhood of about 4,000 units, or 6,000 people. Not only is that number of people too few for a self-sustaining neighborhood, but any residential uses would be overwhelmed by commercial and office uses.

That's why, after some initial jubilation, advocates such as the Seaport Alliance for Neighborhood Design, the Boston Harbor Association and the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods are becoming more skeptical about the Municipal Harbor Plan. Yes, they got more open space. But the prospects for creating a new residential neighborhood are dimming.

Instead of the Back Bay, they fear the Seaport District will look more like Rowe's Wharf writ large. The few people who live there will be mostly short-term residents, empty-nesters or those who use their waterfront condos as pieds-a-terre. Commercial interests will dominate.

No doubt both sides are relieved that the Municipal Harbor Plan has been approved. But some activists are now worrying that perhaps their hard-fought victory will be pyrrhic. If there are no children to be seen, then why build them a place to play?

Tom Keane writes every Friday for the Herald. He can be reached at

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