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Aquarium’s IMAX Theater Deal Would Increase Footprint of Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage Project

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.

Rendering of Blueway corridor from the Greenway to Boston Harbor through a new plaza at New England Aquarium (NEAQ)

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.

16 Replies to “Aquarium’s IMAX Theater Deal Would Increase Footprint of Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage Project

  1. Dear friends… that IMAX (itself an illegal mistake) is going to become OPEN SPACE just as a number of us have long-suggested it should be, and join with a possible sinking of part of Milk Street below grade to create the largest possible open space at the front of Central Wharf. This is the next step to making all that possible!
    This is a huge win! How can the writer fail to see that?
    The result of this ‘added bonus’ will be not likely be more than a couple of feet of width to the tower as it rises skyward. It will still, not exceed 900,000 sq ft, and most of that will be shoved wayyyy over on the South end of the parcel. The only result will be, giving the developer a bit more flexibility on how to shape the footprint of the tower (to accommodate the residence part of the structure)….
    There is no longer a need to make out like you’ve lost, when, in fact, you have won.

    1. If this is such a “huge win” as you say, then why was it hidden from the public after years of meetings?

    2. i only know one thing. Even if you give Chiofaro the IMAX parcel as part of a new greater whole, and limit the total of the aggregate site to 50%…. remember, the Chiofaro team are still limited to 900,000 sq ft, and the upward potential of green space is still enormous.
      Is this really possible? Well, let’s see.
      In the fall of 2015, i began yelling, “build 1 tower, make a giant park…. build 1 tower, make a giant park….”
      This is in the public record.
      how do you best do this?
      1. single tower. (Nov ’15)
      2. dump the IMAX! (May ’15)
      3. sink Milk Steet below grade. (May ’16)
      (make that single tower to cover about 53% of the parcel – May ’16)
      4. put in trails + plant trees. (May ’16)

      Please, take a moment to study the following layout…
      It’s the basic idea i’ve been harping about in the Globe for going on 2 years….
      Come on, look at this!


      Try to imagine Central Wharf with that much open land!
      You can leave it as a relatively open park, or fill it with any number of trees and trails.
      i don’t know exactly what the BPDA and the Chiofaro team have in mind.
      But this extent of open space is a realistic scale of the size of we might be getting once that IMAX is out of there.

      We’re hearing, “hey the Aquarium and the Building Dept got this magic plan…..”

      My guess, is the BPDA, Chiofaro team and Aquarium have built an uneasy alliance, but are setting up some damn good planning here.

      So, i wonder… Are they gonna sink Milk Street?

  2. So much for greater transparency from the “New BRA/BPDA”! Same old shenanigans where there is a lengthy, supposedly public reveiew process where plans are approved, and then at the 11th hour the BRA significantly changes the plan without any public input or disclosure. Inevitably the revised plans are to the benefit of the developer and the detriment of the residents of Boston.

  3. This was a very well written article. Kudos to the author for discovering the facts and writing both the pros and cons of the deal.

  4. This is no doubt a win and should open up direct access to the waterfront that had previously been blocked by the theater. Too bad that the opponents of the project live in some of the biggest architectural eyesores in the city. They’ll nit pick anything in order to hinder the building of a significantly nicer development adjacent to it.

  5. It’s pretty clear the city wants this project and is willing to give the developer whatever he wants with little or no input from the residents but there are three things that concern me.
    1. The density is way too much for the neighborhood. Was a traffic study done? If so, I’d love seeing it.
    2. The illustration for the plaza, which looks suspiciously like a wide sidewalk, is deceptive. It shows upscale urbanites enjoying a perfect summers day. The fountains are burbling, the flowers blooming and children frolic in the water. The reality is this will be a wind swept wasteland six months a year.
    3. I hope some of the engineers at the BRA/BPDA look at the foundation plans for this enormous building. This building is being built on filled land which would become unstable in the event of an earthquake. Are the developers planning on anchoring the foundation down into the bedrock or are they planning a different, less expensive type of foundation? The new Millennium Tower in San Francisco is already sinking and is 16 inches off plumb which is a huge problem.
    These issues need to be addressed before this building is approved.

    1. Maybe Chiofaro should propose an 8 story parking garage with 0% open space. Would that make you happy?

  6. Nick. Your comment resonated with me. The scene on paper looks good, but in my opinion I think the project is suffocating and you are right in bringing to the fore the issue of their building on filled land. Many questions remain.

    1. Thanks, Heather. The city’s planning agency should be all over the Millennium Tower fiasco in SanFrancisco, That building is leaning dangerously and may be condemned. One plan is to knock twenty stories off the top to lighten the weight. http://www.npr.org/2017/01/04/508241969/san-franciscos-leaning-tower-has-residents-fuming.

      Just like the one planned for our waterfront, the SF tower is built on land fill and the pilings apparently do not go all the way down into the bed rock. There are different ways to build a skyscraper foundation, some safe but expensive others cheap but risky. With the threat of global warming and rising sea levels the Boston planning agency should look at this entire project very carefully and be sure it’s over engineered to withstand any threat. Remember the John Hancock tower?

      1. A developer would be brain dead to not learn from the SF Millenium Tower fiasco. I’m not sure why you’re speculating that they are oblivious to it. Are the Harbor Towers sinking or are you ignoring them to fit your narrative?

      2. Nick,
        Srsly dude, we build on granite reefs hundreds of miles thick. San Francisco builds on compressed sand. it’s Diamonds vs Chalk….
        Neither Boston, New York nor Philadelphia will ever have a leaning skyscraper. We did build a few towers a bit too flexible 35~50 years ago — but not recently.
        Our western cities are built upon sedementary-laden basins that surround the Rockie’s high slopes. These alluvial plains consist of gravels and sands, often thousands of feet thick that eroded and chipped off the high peaks by weathering over millions of years, and eventually mineralized to form soft layers of sandstone and shale.
        Landfill has nothing to do with Millennium Tower San Francisco’s problems. It;s soft rock that is being compressed by Millennium’s tower, and now, likely the Transbay supertall tower as well (going up next door).

  7. Nick hits the nail on the head.

    Not only is the density, and other existing rules being discarded, the set back from the water is minuscule compared to other world class cities. San Francisco’s tallest buildings are set 200 feet back from the water, Vancouver: 275 feet, Chicago: 325 Miami:350 feet.

    Why is the Municipal Harbor Plan allowing the Prudential/Chiafaro development ignore the Coastal Zoning Management and Chapter 90 rules? They were developed to protect the Boston Waterfront.

    At a number of meetings the concern was that the developer wouldn’t make enough money unless he could flaunt these rules.
    It is not the Waterfront’s responsibility to ignore the rules to make sure that the developer gets an economic return that he deems satisfactory. Is it the Waterfront’s fault that the developers overpaid for the garage?

    1. “Why is the Municipal Harbor Plan allowing the Prudential/Chiafaro development ignore the Coastal Zoning Management and Chapter 90 rules? They were developed to protect the Boston Waterfront.”

      Why? because the property will be MASSIVELY improved over what you have now, and you GET AN HUGE OPEN AREA with trees, shrubs, rabbits and animals compared to the horrific cement garage.
      This project is going to win approval in a landslide of support from the people of Boston.
      Where is the objectivity?

  8. Of all the arguments the one that mentions Global Warming resonated with me. This open area will be underwater in a short time unless we build a dike across Boston harbor. Venice Italy has talked about this for years and nothing has happened.
    I winter in Florida and the coastal islands (Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale etc.) are already flooded at “Moon” tides. It will happen here soon. Maybe we can call it the “Chiafaro Pool.”

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