Neighbors concerned about the size and scale of the proposed Chiofaro Co. Harbor Garage project thought they had achieved a victory when the draft Municipal Harbor plan increased the open space requirement from 30% to 50%, complying with Chapter 91. They still weren’t thrilled with a 600 foot high tower, but at least there would be plenty of ground space around the tower between Boston Harbor and the Rose Kennedy Greenway. But now, Harbor Towers residents and the Wharf District Council are reeling from undisclosed dealings between city officials, New England Aquarium and Harbor Garage developer that would result in significantly less than 50% open space.
Specifically, the Boston Planning & Redevelopment Authority (BPDA, formerly BRA) would allow Chiofaro Co. to acquire the Aquarium’s IMAX theater, tear it down and include that land in the 50% open space calculation stated in the Municipal Harbor Plan. The result would be a wider building and greater density on the ground space of the existing garage parcel.
Without public review and after 40+ public meetings, the BPDA issued this last minute revision to allow acquired off-site property immediately before its board approved the document and sent it off for State approval. The language appears specifically tailored to support the IMAX theater sale by the Aquarium to increase the size of Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage project.
Language added to the municipal harbor plan:
If the Harbor Garage site is increased by the proponent acquiring additional land area on which an existing structure is presently located, the footprint of the Harbor Garage project may be increased correspondingly if that existing structure is removed so the additional land area becomes publicly accessible open space.
Intense negotiations between the New England Aquarium and Chiofaro Co. are set to provide funding for the Aquarium’s Blueway proposal by selling the NEAQ’s IMAX theater on the waterfront to the Chiofaro Co. entity that owns the Harbor Garage site.
If the IMAX theater is torn down, the effective open space on the original Harbor Garage footprint would decrease below the 50% requirement and closer to the 30% previously set forth. Harbor Tower residents are also concerned that any building would also be placed much closer to their side of the Harbor Garage site.
The hulking IMAX theater has been long debated because it blocks harbor sight lines and some question how it was allowed to be built by the Aquarium in the first place. Neighbors point out that the Aquarium was going to knock it down anyway as part of its Blueway plan. By selling the land to Chiofaro, it would result in a windfall for the Aquarium that has its own expansion in mind.
Proponents of the Harbor Garage project have championed the benefits of replacing an above-ground parking garage with a mixed-use 600′ tall project offering significant open space with support for water-dependent uses and substantial public realm improvements.
For its part, the Chiofaro Co. comment letter strongly supports the Municipal Harbor Plan:
“To be sure, the Plan contemplates a tall building for the site … however, this is not a matter of settling for a big project because it is the only way to remove the garage, it is a matter of honoring a location that is tailor-made for monumental architecture.”
In addition, Chiofaro Co. highlights its support for the Aquarium’s Blueway concept:
“We are particularly excited by the possibilities for the “Blueway” concept promoted by our neighbors at the New England Aquarium.”
The Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Plan has been approved by the BPDA board and is currently under review by State officials that will weigh in on the plan this year.