Approaching the one year mark since the Boston Redevelopment Authority published the agency's widely heralded South Boston Waterfront Public Realm Plan, the City and State have failed to enact zoning and master-planning tools to the 1000-acre area in order to achieve the plan's vision. Rezoning, for example, would be required to create a neighborhood in the western portion of the inner harbor, and much still remains as its former zoning for manufacturing use (e.g. office space). Raised as an issue for years by community activists involved in the planning dialog, market forces continue to deteriorate broad public ideals including many of those set forth in the PRP.
For example, the Fort Point Historic Subdistrict was indentifed in the Public Realm Plan as a mixed-use residential neighborhood. Lacking the necessary zoning and public realm guidance, this area is rapidly being renovated as an office district to alleviate pressure from the burgeoning Financial District. This transformation away from the one visioned in the Public Realm Plan is actively supported by Boston's real-estate and business chambers, as well as the area's industrial concerns (i.e. Gillette) in the adjacent Fort Point Industrial Subdistrict. (see footnote 1)
Regarding greenspace, one of the two largest parks identified in the Public Realm Plan is a grand public thoroughfare of parks and prominades connecting the Convention Center with the Fort Point Channel and Harborwalk. Counter to this vision, however, much of this public parcel has recently been turned over to private ownership by the Central Artery to the US Postal Service. The USPS has elected to use the tract as a parking lot while considering future development on the site. The City and State did little to intervene in the land transfer. (see footnote 2)
On Fan Pier's 20-acre tract, with a 3.3 million square foot office, hotel, retail and condo project being quickly shepherded through approvals by City Hall and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, developers propose only 450 luxury residential units. The Public Realm Plan suggests that over 1000 units (including a range of affordabilities) would be required on Fan Pier to meet a much-needed critical mass for creation of a waterfront neighborhood.
Where the Public Realm Plan states that buildings approaching 300 feet will be few and far between, the Fan Pier plan proposes 8 towers ranging from 147 to 298 feet (4 of which exceed 250 feet). And the total density of the Fan Pier project, which includes office, hotel and condo towers projects a total waterfront density of twice that suggested by the Public Realm Plan.
Where the Public Realm Plan expects development projects to include 50% open space, Fan Pier has an estimated 13% greenspace as the developer has been allowed to factor its privately owned streets and sidewalks in the open-space requirement.
The Boston Society of Architects now estimates that the Municipal Harbor Plan -- one that attempts to override Chapter 91 ordinances protecting the water's edge from overdevelopment -- will allow an excess of over 1 million square of development above and beyond Chapter 91 restrictions on Fan Pier alone. This Municipal Harbor Plan, a plan set to be enacted into legislation that weakens coastal protections and is crafting allowances for specific developers and projects rather than mandating broad waterfront principles, is being hammered into legislation by the Boston Redevelopment Authority -- the same City agency funding itself through commissions negotiated with developers for completion of these projects.
Of course the list continues: the Convention Center Authority plans utility outposts and vent buildings at the facility's western edge (abutting a planned residential area); the Central Artery elects to set back the Harborwalk from the Fort Point Channel edge rather than repairing crumbling seawalls; and on and on.
At this week's environmental scoping session for Fan Pier, The BRA's urban planner indicated that the South Boston Waterfront Public Realm Plan was not meant to be absolute -- it was a flexible document. But, we ask at SAND, why spend two years planning a waterfront neighborhood in an area where housing, recreational greenspace and general community amenities continue to be entirely absent from both City and developers' radar screens?
Footnote 1: SAND sources have suggested that the City would be burdened by potential lawsuits filed by developers and/or property owners if assessed values were to diminish by a zoning change from Manufacturing or Commercial to Mixed-use Residential. It is assumed by many in the community, however, that property claims fail when a broad public interest is being served or when the City focuses on adequate remediation (consider recent eminent domain takings on the waterfront for creation of the Convention Center). Furthermore, land values have escalated significantly only as a direct result of taxpayer improvements and public subsidy. An area zoned as mixed-use residential with a newly constructed MBTA station would likely be assessed as higher value compared with a commercial district lacking public transportation.
Footnote 2: As a curious aside, Beacon Capital -- owner/developers of a 120-unit luxury residential building Fort Point Place, continue to market the project showing the abutting property as the large park originally visioned in the BRA Public Realm Plan -- not the planned US Post Office parking lot. While the Post Office has agreed to include a token 60 x 100 foot park in their plan a the corner of the lot -- this patch is insignificant in scale with the park illustrated in Fort Point Place marketing materials.
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