The Harborwalk at Commercial Wharf continues to be in dispute with the latest shots fired at a hearing last night by the Boston Conservation Commission (ConComm). Boston Boat Basin, LLC, owner of 87 Commercial Wharf and Boston Yacht Haven, ran into ConComm’s displeasure with the near decade-long abutter arguments regarding the extension of a public access walkway around the wharf property. The ConComm hearing was held on March 7, 2012 at Boston City Hall.
Newburyport developer and marina owner, Charles “Chuck” Lagasse, purchased Yacht Haven out of bankruptcy in late 2009 (See Yacht Haven Gets a Premium Bid for $9.9 Million). He appeared this week before ConComm regarding a reconfiguration of its docks, floats and pilings to alleviate wave and wind concerns for boats docked at its marina on the end of Commercial Wharf. Mr. Lagasse was present at the hearing with Consultant Jamie Fay from Fort Point Associates.
ConComm did not approve the work, instead voting 4-1 to continue the hearing until early April. ConComm was primarily concerned with the lack of progress toward building a Harborwalk at Commercial Wharf. Some of the history discussed at the hearing:
- In 2004, developer Douglas Freeman agreed to build a 260-foot cantilevered Harborwalk out from the seawall at an estimated cost of $170,000, in accordance with an enforcement order by the Department of Environmental Protection. (See the 2004 DEP letter.) Mr. Freeman also agreed to allocate one ground floor unit for public accommodation. At the time, Mr. Freeman was converting 12 commercial units at Commercial Wharf for residential use that have since been sold.
- The Commercial Wharf Condo Association signed on to the 2004 agreement with DEP that would include a 4-foot wide section of the Harborwalk on their property. In addition, the Association would be responsible for the maintenance of the Harborwalk in perpetuity.
- No work on the proposed Harborwalk was accomplished because developer Freeman did not own any of the land and was unable to gain abutter approvals, notably at Yacht Haven. In 2005, Yacht Haven was up for sale and the previous owner (Les Marino) did not want to jeopardize a sale with a Harborwalk commitment. Thereafter, Yovette Mumford purchased Yacht Haven for $12 million. By that time, developer Freeman had moved on. Mumford defaulted on the loan for the property leading to an auction and sale in late 2009 to current owner Boston Boat Basin LLC / Yacht Haven.
- With no current property ownership at Commercial Wharf, Mr. Freeman’s intentions are unknown as is the funding status for the proposed Harborwalk section. ConComm Executive Director Chris Busch said that Mr. Freeman was unavailable to come to the meeting.
Boston Boat Basin LLC / Yacht Haven, said at the hearing that it opposes the proposed 8-foot wide cantilevered, planked Harborwalk that would extend from the Commercial Wharf seawall. Mr. Lagasse said he is concerned for the barnacles and marine life that would be harmed by the “shading” of a cantilevered Harborwalk. He also objected to giving up 8 feet of space over the water sheet property for the Harborwalk because he would lose dock slips.
Mr. Lagasse said he would prefer the Harborwalk be constructed on the space owned by the Commercial Wharf Condominium Association currently used for parking over asphalt by Commercial Wharf residents.
Representatives from Commercial Wharf Condominium Association also spoke at the ConComm hearing. The Condo Association confirmed their previous agreement with Doug Freeman for the construction of cantilevered Harborwalk extending out from the existing seawall.
A 12-foot wide Harborwalk is already in place around the Yacht Haven complex at the end of Commercial Wharf, with benches and public restrooms. The proposed walkway section in dispute extends from the Atlantic Avenue entrance along the edges of Commercial Wharf on the south side of the property.
State Chapter 91 licensing could play a major role in the outcome of the Harborwalk issue. The State’s Department of Environmental Protection is expected to rule shortly on a Request for Determination filed by Boston Boat Basin/Yacht Haven regarding the need for Commercial Wharf to negotiate a Chapter 91 license for its condominium building, built on private tidelands. The Request For Determination was filed by Fort Point Associates on behalf of Boston Boat Basin LLC (Yacht Haven) and argues that a change of use occurred as a result of the substantial conversion of units from commercial to residential over time. (See Commercial Wharf / Yacht Haven – Document Review of Chapter 91 Request for Determination)
In January 2012, the DEP ruled that the seaward end of the parking lot on Commonwealth Tidelands would need a Chapter 91 license. The ruling has been appealed by the Condo Association and a March 20, 2012 hearing is scheduled. (See the January 2012 DEP ruling for the seaward parking area at Commercial Wharf – pdf.) This determination is separate from the pending ruling regarding the condo building.
Should the DEP rule that a Chapter 91 license is required at the Commercial Wharf condominium building, a negotiation could take place regarding the status of the Harborwalk and public access requirements at the property owned by the Condo Association. The Yacht Haven property already has a previously negotiated a Chapter 91 license that resulted in its existing Harborwalk and benches at the end of Commercial Wharf.
Notable comments made by the Commission at the hearing:
- Commissioner Stephen Kunian said there has been a “certain level of deception” in this dispute. He strongly encouraged both the proponent and the Condo Association to come to terms indicating that he would “oppose anything at Commercial Wharf until an agreement is in place to put in a Harborwalk.” He recalled the negotiation to previously put in the Harborwalk around Joe’s American Bar & Grill. “It was not Commercial Wharf Condo Association’s shining moment.” He further noted that Boston Boat Basin LLC / Yacht Haven likely knew of the cantilevered Harborwalk requirement at the time of purchase.
- Commissioner Toni Pollak said that while a cantilevered Harborwalk may not be ideal, it has put into place elsewhere in the city.
- Commisioner Vivien Li expressed frustration at the number of years it has taken with no resolution for the Harborwalk. She further asked about the due diligence performed by the proponent regarding the Harborwalk plan before he purchased the property. Mr. Lagasse responded that he assumed DEP would enforce Chapter 91 license conditions on the Condominium Association.
- Commissioner John Lewis noted that the pedestrian use of Long Wharf is significantly higher than that on Commercial Wharf, likely due to the missing Harborwalk.
- Commissioner Charles Button dissented from the other commissioners on continuing the agenda item. He questioned why Boston Boat Basin LLC / Yacht Haven should have to delay its reconfiguration work because of the separate Harborwalk issue.
Other comments from the meeting:
- Mr. Lagasse agreed to replace binocular viewing apparatus that previously was located at Yacht Haven.
- A marina customer spoke in support of the proponent and the positive changes that have been made at Yacht Haven.
- The 2-story commercial building that was damaged by fire last year has agreed to allow a Harborwalk easement in front their property. This commitment was made at a prior ConComm hearing as part of the reconstruction efforts.
- Mr. Lagasse indicated that unlike the previous owner of Yacht Haven, Yovette Mumford, his primary business is the marina and has no plans to expand the property. (See Yacht Haven Conspiracy Theories Abound.) Lagasse said that he has built over 1 1/2 miles of Harborwalk through other projects.
With no resolution of the Harborwalk issue in sight, ConComm voted 4-1 to continue the hearing for one month, until early April. Commissioner Toni Pollak amended the motion to have ConComm’s Executive Director write a letter to DEP reminding them of the developer’s commitment to build a Harborwalk. ConComm may also wait until the DEP rules on the Chapter 91 issue. The proponent asked to be put on the record objecting to the continuation. The dock reconfiguration would require six weeks and there is limited time before the beginning of the 2012 marina season at Yacht Haven.