Within the past few days, Boston Globe editors and columnists have published two especially enlightening editorials regarding the waterfront planning process.

Today, the Boston Globe Editorial Board commented on the approvals being sought by the Fan Pier planning team (see below). Last Wednesday, Globe columnist Steve Bailey shed light on the growing divide between the Public Realm Plan and the plans being touted by waterfront developers -- differences recently projected through computer analysis by Boston Society of Architects. (click here to read Steve Bailey's biting column).



The best fit on the waterfront

If only the Fan Pier project stood isolated on Boston's waterfront, city and state regulators could evaluate it quickly and without regard for potential neighbors. But it is flanked by two other parcels of land that are ready for development. If the Fan Pier project is approved without a detailed plan for the entire district, the city runs the risk of creating a dense, forbidding enclave in what ought be a prime waterfront destination inviting to everybody in the greater community.

Planning for coherent development ought to be the main task of the committee working on the Municipal Harbor Plan, which will flesh out the state standards for public access to the waterfront. An interim report of the committee is due in a few weeks, but it is unclear whether it will propose a plan specific enough to ensure that the area will not be overbuilt. Robert Durand, the state secretary of environmental affairs, needs to serve as backstop to encourage maximum public access to and enjoyment of the waterfront.

Of particular concern is the amount of open space available to the public, which state requirements set at 50 percent. The Fan Pier plan meets that figure by including streets and sidewalks, hardly greenery. If other developers follow suit, the South Boston waterfront will contain few traces of the parkland that makes the Esplanade and Castle Island such treats to visit.

Transportation might also be a problem, especially given traffic from the Convention Center farther inland. The city must make sure that the building out of the Fan Pier and its environs does not cause gridlock throughout the area.

Delay would be a burden to the Fan Pier developer, the Pritzker family of Chicago. The latest plan, their third for the site, has many appealing features, including a public marina and space for the Institute of Contemporary Art. It retains, however, the more than 3 million square feet of building space in the two earlier versions. That massive bulk requires several buildings approaching 300 feet tall. Their size would be cleverly disguised by setbacks, cross streets, and pathways between the buildings, but they still present a formidable wall of brick, glass, and stone along old Northern Avenue.

At least the taller Fan Pier buildings are not right on the water's edge. A representative of Steve Karp, who is developing Pier 4 next to the Pritzker parcel, shocked many members of the harbor planning committee when he talked about putting 300-footers within 20 feet of the water. Frank McCourt, who owns the parking lots across Northern Avenue from the Fan Pier site, has been coy about his plans, but if heights of 270 or 300 feet are to be the norm, he will not want to be left out. He may offer a preview of his plans when he appears before the committee on Wednesday.

McCourt, to his credit, is aware of the need for a coherent vision to guide the shape of the entire district. This will be possible if there is a cooperative arrangement among Pritzker, Karp, and McCourt, subject to city approval. If each insists on acting alone, the city and state must supply the vision.

Members of the harbor planning committee need only look at the planning guidelines written last year by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which speak of a ''24-hour neighborhood'' with a vibrant mix of residential and business uses. ''Very few buildings in the district will approach 300 feet,'' it said.

Or the committee can turn to the ''Scope for the South Boston Waterfront District Municipal Harbor'' prepared by Durand, the state's environmental affairs secretary, which endorses ''concepts of mixed-use development that encourage extended and diverse public use.'' He said he expects the Municipal Harbor Plan to discuss the Fan Pier area within the context of adjacent development.

The Pritzkers have hired top-notch consultants to draft their revised plan. They hope to begin construction while the economy remains strong, and the city wants their two planned hotels up and running by the time the convention center opens in 2003.

The city, the state, and the private developers can create a great new district out of the derelict South Boston piers. It would be shortsighted to move the Pritzker plan forward, whatever its strengths, without determining the shape and mass of its future neighbors. The Municipal Harbor Plan needs to set firm limits on development to take advantage of an opportunity that comes rarely in the history of a city.

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 11/29/99.

©Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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