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© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

Published in The Boston Globe, 3/28/2006

Waterfront compromise
In a rare move, leaders of community groups applaud city for revising Fort Point Channel plan

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff

Six months after rebelling against the city's plan for a $2.3 billion redevelopment along the Fort Point Channel, the same community leaders are shouting hosannas for the Boston Redevelopment Authority's change of heart.

''It seemed like one of the most responsive moves from the BRA that I've seen in the last 10 years," said former critic Steven Hollinger, cofounder of a neighborhood watchdog group, Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design.

This doesn't happen every day in Boston.

City Hall planners rarely hear gratitude from neighborhoods facing enormous new development projects. And BRA planners last year were singed by community criticism that they had dealt almost exclusively with the area's four big property owners -- and had shut out the residents -- in the emerging neighborhood referred to as the 100 acres.

Instead of trying to force the master plan they had hammered out with the landowners, however, planners spent six months coming up with a new design.

They nearly doubled the length of a central park, which has the effect of making more of the neighborhood closer to the water. They also reduced the maximum height allowed for almost any new buildings, from 200 feet to 180 feet, creating an atmosphere that is expected to feel a lot less congested.

More than that, city officials just let the community feel like it was being heard -- something some residents say too seldom happens.

''We're not trying to prevent development. We're really trying to advocate for a balance that has an urban quality of life," said Valerie Burns, president of the Boston Natural Areas Network and a 21-year resident of the area. ''The neighborhood felt ignored, or outplayed by the developers. But at this point the plan looks good."

BRA officials are unaccustomed to hearing such praise. At a January meeting in a tiny room in the vast Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the BRA rolled out its revamped plan. It was a big hit.

Kairos Shen, the BRA's director of planning, was taken aback. ''I want to thank everybody for thanking us," he said.

The land is a former shipping and warehousing district, between the channel and the convention center, and between Summer Street and West Broadway. It is in transition from parking lot and Big Dig construction use to what City Hall envisions as a chic neighborhood of artists, businesses, restaurants, and lofts.

Final details of a master plan for the area that sets guidelines for development -- the document that caused community unrest in the fall -- must still be worked out.

The changes have to be agreed to by property owners, who have lost about 5 percent of the 6.2 million square feet they thought they had secured for development.

The state must accept the city and community vision of the area as well.

The four big players in the area are Gillette, which owns about half the land and was purchased last year by Procter & Gamble Co.; the United States Postal Service, which controls the second-largest block of land, most of it now used for parking; a partnership of Archon Group and Goldman Properties Co. of New York, which owns 17 buildings near the channel; and Beacon Capital Partners LLC of Boston, developer of the Channel Center mixed-use blocks.

All four caution the deal isn't done yet, but they generally endorse the new master plan.

Tony Goldman, president of Goldman Properties, said, ''We're encouraged, but we are also really interested in some openness to flexibility as to how density is distributed."

Many in the community objected not only to the private discussions that led to those guidelines but to the original plan itself, which called for multiple blocks of redevelopment they thought would have been too dense and looked too much like downtown.

Now, community leaders praise the central park that has been extended to the water's edge, with overall parkland increased to about 11.5 acres.

They like the reduction in the maximum height of buildings to 180 feet -- though they still have some reservations about where those tallest buildings will be located.

But until the city gives final approval to the development plans of each of the landowners, the community won't know precisely what it is getting.

''We've learned to be somewhat circumspect about what we see in any one plan," said Burns. ''If it works, people will be very delighted. If it works, people will be very surprised."

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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