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Stick to the plan

By Steve Bailey, Boston Globe Staff, 11/24/99

So the mayor stood up at a packed Chamber of Commerce breakfast yesterday and acknowledged that the Boston Redevelopment Authority's planners, the people at the very heart of what the agency is about, need help, and the city's development agenda has been left to the developers.

How long has Tom Menino been mayor? No, I refuse to go there this morning. Let's not dwell on the obvious (and yesterday at the Swissotel the mayor didn't either): that the BRA has continued to atrophy on Menino's watch. Let's take the mayor's word that he's going to fix it.

It has been open season on the BRA, but the one thing to come out of there recently that got almost universal raves was the Seaport Public Realm Plan, which outlined the future for South Boston's waterfront. Naysayers maintain that is because a New York planning firm, not the BRA, took the lead. Still, the plan was seen as having the mix of vision and detail to put the city ahead of the curve in building Boston's next frontier. Give the BRA credit for getting it done.

Now developers are taking the wraps off their own South Boston plans. How are they stacking up against the vision that was so widely applauded just six months ago? Not well, not well at all, say those monitoring the process.

In a tough critique, the Boston Society of Architects has generated a series of computer models comparing the city's plan for the waterfront to what developers are proposing. Their verdict: We're on track to get not the 21st century version of the Back Bay we've been promised but another Kendall Square, Cambridge's concrete no man's land only a bio-geek could love.

Kendall Square? A certain amount of this is no doubt the standard intramurals that always go on between architects and planners. The BRA is not happy with the Boston Society of Architects. But the BSA's analysis should set off warning bells, given the mayor's own report card for his planning agency.

The BSA's concerns include the scale of the proposed projects (read: As usual, they're too big and too tall), the lack of open space, and maybe most important the mix of buildings. A few examples:

Height. In the Seaport plan, then-BRA director Tom O'Brien told us ''very few buildings will approach 300 feet.'' Now with two projects alone - the Pritzker family's Fan Pier and developer Steve Karp's Pier Four - we already have proposals for at least six buildings of 250 to 300 feet in height. If the Pritzkers go 300 feet, what is Frank McCourt going to want for his site stuck behind the Fan Pier? Six hundred feet? More?

The mix. The Seaport plan projected about 16 million square feet of new building over the next 30 years. About one-quarter of that was to be office space, a slightly higher percentage residential. What's happening? There's a gold rush to build office space.

Take the Pritzkers' Fan Pier, the most advanced proposal so far. Of 3.2 million square feet of development, nearly half of it is in three office buildings. Office buildings generate traffic during the day, Kendall Squares at night.

''There is no chance this is going to turn out to be Kendall Square,'' says Dan O'Connell of Spaulding & Slye Colliers, the development manager for the Pritzkers.

Who's going to build the housing? The Seaport plan envisioned 5,000 to 8,000 units of housing; 5,000 is closer to the number in light of City Council president Jimmy Kelly's concern about too much housing. If the Pritzkers were to build housing in proportion to their site, they would be proposing 1,000 units. They are talking 450 units of luxury condos and apartments.

The Pritzkers are some of the best developers in the country. But the fact is that each developer wants to build the most profitable stuff and leave the housing to the next guy. What is going to happen with the developers who follow if the city does not insist that all developers contribute their fair share?

''Don't confuse what someone is proposing with what gets approved,'' says Linda Haar, the BRA's director of planning.

The BRA got the planning right. Now comes the hard part.

You can reach me at (617) 929-2902 or

This story ran on page D01 of the Boston Globe on 11/24/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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