We deserve more out of Seaport

By Brian McGrory, Globe Columnist, 12/17/99
Copyright 1999 The Boston Globe

The conveniently discarded truth about the Seaport District is that the public is entitled to something far greater than the mediocrity that developers and politicians are offering now.

The public, meaning you and I, have turned a ragtag collection of rubble-strewn lots and creaky piers into one of the most coveted swaths of undeveloped land in urban America. We've done it the old-fashioned way: with money.

We've done it by spending $3.6 billion in public dollars - our dollars - to clean Boston Harbor, such that porpoises and seals now swim along the waterfront docks.

We've done it by pledging $700 million in public funds - our funds - to build a new convention center in the Seaport that will, quite literally, attract planeloads of visitors to our city with pocketfuls of expense account cash.

We've done it by spending $10.8 billion on a new transportation system that includes the Ted Williams Tunnel, which will deliver conventioneers from the airport to the Seaport in minutes. The Massachusetts Turnpike extension will whisk people to the area from points afar. The sinking of the Central Artery will link the Seaport to the financial district in ways that most people can't yet imagine, literally transforming the geographical center of downtown Boston.

And into this realm of the wonderfully possible comes a trio of developers and a band of politicians who seem to have lost all sense of mission and control.

First up, Steve Karp, the shopping mall baron, best known as a developer of J.C. Penneys and Chess Kings out beyond Route 128, a man who's idea of vision is cutting down trees that might block his line of sight.

He's put forth a proposal for what is a glorified suburban shopping mall stuffed onto the sliver of land that is Pier 4, including a 300-foot midrise building so close to the water that waves could lap up against it at the prediction of a storm.

Next up, Nick Pritzker, the head of Hyatt Hotels and the owner of the adjacent and larger Fan Pier, which he was awarded [for free] in a legal victory over Anthony Athanas in 1992.

The Pritzkers came in last month with a proposal better than might have been expected, but not as good as was hoped. To its credit, it includes a public skating rink, an art museum, a floating stage in a tidal basin, water sculptures, and boat slips. To its detriment, it squeezes 3.2 million square feet of office, hotel, and residential space into nine city blocks, creating what critics say is a dense, high wall of steel and glass blocking the water from the neighborhood inspired by it.

''It needs a lot of care and tinkering,'' says Robert Campbell, the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic.

Next, Frank McCourt, who comes to the table with a massive strip of land across the street from Fan Pier and Pier 4, and a noble set of ideas on how developers can and should do better.

''Assume I have enormous self-interest,'' he said in a recent interview. Then he went on to insist that Pritzker and Karp revise their plans to have less density, broader green spaces, grander roadways, and clearer paths to the harbor.

All of which would directly benefit McCourt, giving more of his tenants water views. But it would also benefit the public, evoking what McCourt likes to call ''a feeling of Back Bay'' rather than the sterility of Cambridge's Kendall Square.

McCourt's point is a wise one, supported by architects and conservationists. But he has infuriated other developers and politicians, in no small part because he's failed to offer any blueprint of his own. Instead, he sits on his land and waits.

''Where's his plan?'' Mayor Thomas M. Menino asked. ''I like him as a person. But he just talks, talks, talks, and there's nothing. He's just another one of those people in Boston, always critical.''

Still, Menino has his own issues. He has no director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority at the exact time when the agency needs one most, when the Boston landscape is changing by the day and control is slipping away. His former aide, David Passafaro, has declined the post, and any selection will likely be later rather than sooner.

All of which creates little more than bedlam, and worse, peril. Of course, it's the developers' land, and no one is suggesting that an opportunity to build be squandered.

But we, the public, have invested close to $15 billion to instill the district with value, to give this city an opportunity to grow and prosper. It's no time to hope for the best. It's high time to demand it. And right now, we're not even close.

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