The September 28th meeting of the Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan Advisory Committee, hosted by the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), formerly known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), heard a presentation from the New England Aquarium (NEAQ). The team presented their concept for a corridor, 1000 feet long and about 80 feet wide, dubbed the “Blueway“, connecting the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the water’s edge. This plan is hoped to be a part of the Municipal Harbor Plan (MHP), currently in draft mode, and incorporates many of the Public Realm Plan’s guidelines the MHP is trying to address.
Rich McGuinness, Deputy Director for Waterfront Planning opened the 40th meeting of the committee, welcoming them back after the summer break. After the housekeeping announcements, Mr. McGuinness introduced Dr. Nigella Hillgarth, President, and CEO of the NEAQ and her team to present their proposal for a new aquarium development and to discuss how it would fit into the district-wide planning efforts. Mr. McGuinness explained that the NEAQ is one of the main anchors for the district and it is not just a cultural focal point, but it is also an ideal place to increase the water-dependent uses for the area, which is one of the main goals for the plan.
Dr. Hillgarth started the presentation describing that the Aquarium’s aims for the area are to focus on increasing the open space around the central campus, to provide substantial public benefits and hoped that they will be incorporated into the planning efforts.
The Aquarium team is proposing a new park and open space, dubbed the Blueway, that would connect the Greenway all the way to the end of the pier at Central Wharf. Relocation of the IMAX theatre, raising the existing Aquarium building, providing retail opportunities and terraces within the new building. Several walkways, some of the floating on the water, and an artificial island at the east side of the wharf would advance the area into a possibly even greater focal point than what it is now. Several other points are included in the design, such as year-round activation, climate resilient construction of salt resistant gardens around the walkway and improved access and circulation to alleviate the current traffic problems.
Importantly, the Aquarium’s Hillgarth implied potential support for the Chiofaro Company’s Harbor Garage project, should the developer aid the Aquarium’s own Blueway redevelopment. Until now, the Aquarium has been adamantly opposed to a tower construction at next door Harbor Garage site.
P. Eric Krauss, COO/CFO of the NE Aquarium, described their hopes for a new physical entity that unlocks more opportunities by being an outward-looking institution. Mr. Krauss hopes that while serving 1.3 million visitors a year on the plaza and surrounding areas, they can address several issues. The crowded walkways, the traffic congestion by the various buses and pedestrian access to the building, the boats and to the overall general area.
The NEAQ team stressed that the vision does not include a new building design plan, but the plaza would have to be redefined, starting with the relocation of the IMAX theater. Although no specific schedule has been discussed, several key features are incorporated into the design.
Committee members were appreciative of this new vision and applauded the NEAQ’s efforts for coming up with a “transformative” idea, that addresses several points described in the Public Realm Plan. They encouraged the BPDA to incorporate the idea of a “Blueway” into the plan. At the same time, the committee expressed their reservations about the lack of funding, which could not be addressed at this phase. Both the team and the committee acknowledged that the proposed substitute provisions would not be enough to cover the significantly higher price tag. However, they were hopeful that additional state and city funding would also be available.
Several committee members also noted that the Wharf District Council has also proposed a plan, that should be incorporated into the draft. While generally appreciative of the Aquarium’s design, they encouraged the BPDA to hear an additional presentation from the Council and to include those suggestions as well. The Council’s recommendations focus on the whole area and not just a single site, providing a more comprehensive advice that any single development project can contribute.
During the public comments section of the meeting, several members supported the efforts to include the Wharf District Council’s presentation in future meetings and expressed frustration with the slow moving process. Mr. McGuinness, in his response, promised to invite the Council’s representative for the next meeting and stated that progress has been made during the past three years of planning.
As for the future schedule, the BPDA will hold one more meeting on October 19th. Afterwards, it is planning to hold a comment period from October 19th, until November 9th and anticipates that the BPDA Board of Directors will authorize the plan at their November 17th meeting to move forward and submit the plan to the state. The State of Massachusetts will hold a 30 day consultation period, including public hearings, and while it can modify the plan, it is expected to provide a decision by February 2017, by stating the guidelines for the Chapter 91 licensing requirements.
The next meeting is scheduled for October 19th, 6pm-8pm at City Hall’s Piedmont Room.