The following is the original version of a SAND editorial, published on 2/9/98 in the Boston Banker and Tradesman.
[NOTE for readers: This op-ed was published four months after the BRA's publication of a "DRAFT South Boston Seaport Master Plan" in November 1997, and during the year-long period in which the BRA "South Boston Seaport Public Realm Plan" was being crafted for final publication in early 1999. In this editorial, references to "Master Plan" refer to the original DRAFT plan.]
The title was changed for publication to "Seaport Master Plan Leaves Neighborhood Adrift."
The Boston Seaport Crossroads
In 1798, Boston's vital port welcomed vessels for fishing, whaling and seafaring trade into its safe harbor. From the fishmarket to the meeting house, Boston faced its eastern shore. Today's Boston traveler may, with caution and careful positioning, catch a glimpse of this historic harbor. But, just as the City has moved inward from its coast, the Boston traveler is no longer inclined to sit on a bench and watch the ships glide gently out to sea.
Yet, the traveler quickly recognizes the wonderful human scale and diversity of Boston's neighborhoods. First invited by Hanover Street into the North End, the traveler is later hopelessly and willingly lost to the crooked streets of Beacon Hill. Through Chinatown and over the bridges into Fort Point, the hearts of Boston remain firmly established in its neighborhoods.
With over 1,000 acres of undeveloped public and private land overlooking Boston Harbor, the seaport district of South Boston is at another set of crossroads. This undeveloped land presents our City with many unprecedented opportunities for expansion, yet a vision that recognizes the relationship between Boston and the sea is uncharted.
Creating an urban redevelopment plan for a vibrant seaport district is an approachable task. A vision must start with the recognition that the Boston seaport is vitally important to our identity. Through thoughtful planning, links between the Boston seaport, its surrounding neighborhoods and offshore destinations must be considered. A lasting vision requires an understanding that substantial economic benefits are derived from mixed-use communities and open spaces, not solely from the immediate promises of large-scale development projects. A seaport plan must open Boston to its harbor and welcome the traveler to touch its shores.
The City of Boston has charted a different set of bearings for the seaport district. Although Mayor Menino has been exceptional in valuing the relationship between the City's urban successes and its neighborhoods, the seaport district has been identified as a short-term vehicle for Boston to satisfy its immediate real-estate and revenue demands. To spur instant growth, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has proposed that the seaport district be composed of towering structures ranging in height from 100 to 350 feet. And aside from its perfunctory nods to a harbor sidewalk, an occasional gallery or a hotel oyster bar, the BRA has done little to recognize the potential character of an historic seaport district.
By allowing the southern light over Boston Harbor to be extinguished in shadows of concrete and steel, the BRA Master Plan compromises the City's ability to direct landowners towards a comprehensive Seaport plan. In the existing climate of frenzied construction, harborside development proposals are rubber-stamped without due process, completely artificial and devoid of context. And Massport, the largest landholder of public property, has pursued hotel, office and private development projects, leaving adrift its focus on Boston's port related activity.
To achieve an integration of ideas for a seaport district, the existing BRA Master Plan must be revised to establish a set of cohesive zoning and development guidelines for this area. The revised plan must be courageously restrained in its allowances - preventing the onslaught of large-scale developments unrelated to the coast and inner harbor. Rights of private landowners must be carefully balanced with the regulations required for the creation of a seaport district urban plan. Once these initial land use guidelines are in place, a fast-track dialog regarding the plan can begin.
The BRA must allow the seaport district to be developed through a truly open and public process. Although the BRA developed its plan in communication with a Waterfront Committee, the BRA Master Plan represents its constituents in name alone. Boston has the resources to develop an extraordinary seaport district plan, from its university and business communities, from the Boston Society of Architects to the Boston Harbor Association. Community groups, residents, renowned urban planners and waterfront architects must be sought and allowed to take a place at the table. Impacted neighbors, from South Boston residents to the Fort Point Channel artists community, must also be respected and encouraged to participate.
The Boston traveler is at a crossroads along Boston Harbor. By the water's edge, the vast stretch of land between Castle Island and Fort Point Channel beckons the traveler onward. And at the end of the day, it is the course of the Boston traveler that may help us conceive a grand vision for our City. For we, the people that live and work in Boston are that traveler, and it is left to us to understand the character and essence of Boston - a city by the sea.
(c)1998 Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design. Not to be published in any form without permission of the author. Please contact SAND for release.