Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company The Boston Globe

Saturday, July 11, 1998

A Balanced Plan for Boston's Waterfront

By THOMAS N. O'BRIEN; Thomas N. O'Brien is director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

This is a unique time in the history of Boston, as the depression of the Central Artery, the cleanup of Boston Harbor, and the infrastructure investments in the South Boston Seaport District are reconnecting our citizens to the waterfront. During this time of incredible opportunity, we must remember that growth in urban centers comes over decades, and our work on the waterfront will take the next 30 years, the next four or five economic cycles.

Mayor Menino has charged the Boston Redevelopment Authority to be balanced as we regulate the investor appetite for the seaport district, protecting the community's interests and ensuring that in developers' rush to build something, they don't build the wrong thing. Our task is to create a comprehensive plan that ensures that every piece of proposed development and investment is in keeping with our overall goals for the waterfront.

On June 25, the BRA's 18-month-long series of public forums culminated in a meeting of 200 community residents, civic leaders, and planning and urban design professionals to elicit the best ideas for Seaport development. From this public meeting, we arrived at three guiding principles for our planning of the seaport: accessibility to the water and open space, variety of uses and activities, and quality of design with the buildings and streetscapes. These foundations will define what this neighborhood will look and feel like to the people who live, work, and play there.

Our open space focus will be on HarborWalk, the water surface, and new public destinations in the Seaport. HarborWalk will create more than 100 acres of green space and waterfront walkways throughout Boston, more than three times the size of the Esplanade. We will also attract people not just down to the water but over the water surface through water transport and recreational uses possible in the Fan Pier Cove. Parks and recreational venues in front of the Children's Museum, on the end of Fan Pier, and near the World Trade Center are another critical element of our master plan. These signature structures and open spaces will be the seaport district's equivalent of the Hatch Shell in the Back Bay or the Frog Pond on the Common - magnets drawing people to our waterfront.

There have been suggestions about remaking our waterfront in the image of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf or Baltimore's Inner Harbor. While we certainly can learn from these cities, we must remember that our waterfront already has something these others do not - a variety of uses and activities that encourage different people to experience the waterfront for different reasons. Any attempt to rid the waterfront of even one of its present uses will upset the very balance that makes it so special. When our planning is complete, people should feel that the Seaport has something for them, regardless of whether they are longshoreman from our working port, tourists visiting our convention center, shoppers browsing our retail stores, business people working in our companies, or residents living in our waterfront community. Industrial and maritime activities must be enhanced, in conjunction with the introduction of more residential and commercial uses, to retain Boston's unique waterfront character.

Finally, the BRA will ensure that the public realm, which includes the design of buildings and boulevards, is the best that it can be. We will create streetscapes that reflect the historic character of this area yet also define a new framework for a new neighborhood. These designs will go hand in hand with the creation of Boston's newest walkable boulevards, inviting pedestrians to stroll from one end of Northern Avenue to the other - all the while shopping, eating, or simply enjoying the waterfront. The setbacks of the buildings must create paths that allow people to reach the waterfront.

Some people think of public benefits as only "linkage" dollars, which are the fees levied by the city on developers to help create housing and job training opportunities. We must remember that these three themes - open space, a variety of uses, and quality of design - are just as integral a part of a public benefits package. In fact, Bostonians will be affected more by these benefits than by the millions of linkage dollars that will come from development. These are the real ways in which the BRA can maximize development on the waterfront, and they will be presented in detail in our final master plan to be released this fall.

The character of a city is defined by its people, not its buildings. Only by making this area lively and inviting, only by creating a variety of uses that draw different people down to and onto the water, and only by ensuring the best designed and most aesthetically pleasing waterfront neighborhood will we have made the most of this incredible natural resource and fulfilled our obligation to generations to come.