The Future of Waterfront Developments in Boston Remain Uncertain
Updated: Feb 5
For almost eight years, developers and Massachusetts legislators have tried to agree on a way to add to Boston’s waterfront skyline. The Downtown Waterfront District Municipal Harbor Plan (DTW MHP) appeared to be that compromise. With its creation beginning in March 2013 and passing in 2017, the draft includes a 600 foot skyscraper in place of the Boston Harbor Garage, and a 275 foot hotel in place of the James Hook & Company seafood restaurant.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
But in April, a Suffolk Superior Court judge threw it out, following a lawsuit by environmental activist group Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and neighboring building Harbor Towers. In August, after much controversy and mounting public pressure, Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced she would scrap the development plan. However, Gov. Charlie Baker and head building developer Don Chiofaro have promised that overthrowing the plan will not be as easy as it sounds.
During the approval process, the proposal had already bent some rules. Instead of being ratified by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), former environmental secretary Matt Beaton approved the plans. In the suit ruling, the judge decided that the DEP could not relinquish its authority to the secretary when making these types of determinations.
Then, there were the problems with the proposed buildings themselves. The draft plan had set the maximum lot coverage for the two development sites at 70%. Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act sets a minimum 50% open space requirement. DEP rules say that buildings can only be 55 feet high within 100 feet of the shore. The skyscraper, in particular, would have been 600 feet high, shattering that sanction.
Critics worried that allowing this proposal would set a dangerous environmental precedent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that coastal cities are especially at risk for climate change. This was one CLF and 6 other environmental activist groups signed a letter to Major Janey in early August, asking her to withdraw her support for the plan. When announcing she would do just that, Janey agreed that the DTW MHP did not address climate impacts enough. Climate Ready Boston, a city initiative specifically for preparation and protection from climate change, has also been working on making Boston Harbor more resilient.
Critics have also claimed that the waterfront plan was “developer driven.” The developer and proposer of the plan is Don Chiofaro, the CEO of The Chiofaro Company. He is also a board/executive committee member of an At Large Representative of the waterfront plan. A Better City, self-described as a “multi-sector group of more than 130 business leaders,” has stated that they were “a member of the Advisory Committee since it was established.”
When Mayor Janey announced the plan to be scrapped, Governor Baker declared that “if this is no longer the plan that you folks support, you need a new plan.” He has held firm that the state government will not accept a withdrawal of the plan without something new in its place. Don Chiofaro is not going anywhere either. As the proposer of this plan, he has tried to begin work on his skyscraper for 8 years. In his company's statement, he describes the plan as “thoughtful” and expressed contempt for the new developments in the situation.
Although Mayor Janey was the one to overturn the plans, she will not be the one to pass new legislation. A new Boston mayor is set to be elected on November 2, giving the city its third mayor in eight months. Acting Mayor Kim Janey did not advance from the primary. Candidates Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George have both spoken out on the controversy.
Wu, whom Mayor Janey endorsed, has a similar viewpoint as her on the DTW MHP. In her statement, she included that "Boston has the right to hold a community planning process for a waterfront that is accessible, resilient and equitable. look forward to working with Mayor Janey and stakeholders across our neighborhoods to shape our shared waterfront so it works for everyone."
Essaibi George, the more moderate candidate, was more willing to revise the plan, as opposed to scrapping it all together. In her own words, "While I personally have reservations against a portion of the project, I do not think we need to completely scrap this plan and throw out an entire seven years worth of work and community engagement."
Both candidates, Mayor Janey, and Gov. Baker all recognize the need to act with urgency in this matter, particularly because of the climate crisis. Dismissing seven years of work would be a major setback in preparing Downtown Boston for extreme weather and rising sea levels, both of which it is extremely vulnerable to. However, a 600 foot skyscraper does not seem like the right answer to any officials. The upcoming election will most certainly determine how the DTW MHP will evolve in the coming years. With it, Downtown Boston will see a renovation in its climate resiliency, and public access to the waterfront.