Long Wharf is soooo Boston. It hits all the buttons—quiet space or active, public uses versus private, lazy landlords sucking the juice from a property with no idea how to be good citizens, a government agency stymied by a need to make money.
Something has to give if this place is to live up to its promise.
Let’s start at its end. It’s a bleak spot that, despite its harbor views, attracts few people and should be better used. That’s the opinion of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, supported by a number of surrounding businesses and the Boston Harbor Association. The BRA wants to install a restaurant to occupy part of a brick structure that serves as an escape hatch for the Blue Line. The BRA hopes the restaurant would spill out in summer months onto the brick platform and give the place some life.
Rich McGuinness, the BRA deputy director for waterfront planning, said the restaurant would occupy a small amount of the space, but it would draw people to the harbor during winter months, when most won’t fight the winds to get there. McGuinness pointed to the private Earl of Sandwich on the public Boston Common as the success story he wants to emulate.
The Boston Harbor Association supports the BRA’s efforts to activate the wharf. “We’re not opposed to a restaurant,” said Vivien Li, the BHA executive director. “To leave it in its current condition doesn’t sound like a victory.”
Then there is the other side. Long Wharf is fine the way it is, and should not be subjected to private uses taking over public space. That’s the opinion of ten North End residents (now nine) who brought suit against the BRA when it proposed the restaurant.
Victor Brogna, one of the plaintiffs, said his group is interested in maintaining the wharf for quiet contemplation. He said there are already too many restaurants around the area. A public process should determine its fate. “How it can be improved is not something we’ve spent a lot of time on,” he said.
The lawsuit has had its ups and downs for both factions, with the North End residents prevailing most recently. The BRA says, however, the latest victory is a hollow one, and it will prevail.
But there is one big problem. In all the brou-ha-ha over the end of Long Wharf, the rest of it has been forgotten. The length of the wharf on both sides presents as much or more of a problem than its sparsely populated end.
Start with the Marriott. Its regrettable appearance is even worse at the end facing the harbor—a solid brick wall.
The next atrocity as one walks along the wharf is the historic granite Custom House Block, a beautiful building with a scuzzy ground floor and an owner, ELV Associates, Inc., with no plans to improve the situation.
“We are in compliance with Chapter 91,” said Theresa McLaughlin, the asset manager for ELV. Chapter 91, the law that says private uses of a waterfront should serve a proper public purpose, encourages active uses that promote “public accommodation,” which includes retail and restaurants. But the Custom House Block is grandfathered, and McGuinness said the BRA has no leverage over the situation. McLaughlin believes the photography development business, hidden behind scratched windows, which sends photographers out to take pictures of people on the wharf, is a retail operation, although most Bostonians would find that a stretch. She said there was a vacancy a while ago. “But we tried and couldn’t get retail,” she said.
If the private sector degrades the wharf, so does the BRA. On the north side, the agency maintains a parking lot. McGuinness said the BRA would like to get rid of it, but it brings in cash, and the cost of rebuilding that part of the wharf is expensive. He said the BRA has already improved much of the wharf since 1999. He hopes the conversion of the parking lot into green space can be accomplished in the next phase—whenever that is.
To top off the problems, at high tides the whole thing can flood. Despite its dreariness, this wharf could be the best wharf in Boston. At one end is the harbor. Looking up into the city from the wharf, a person sees the Old State House at the top of State Street. Along the south side are the lively docks for the excursion boats owned by Boston Harbor Cruises, the largest such operation in the nation. Across the way sits the Aquarium, with all its activity. The Chart House is welcoming with its outdoor dining, as is a clam shack cum bar set up each summer by Boston Harbor Cruises.
On the north side is a marina with halyards clanking against the masts. All the sights and sounds of maritime New England.
There is a tiny bit of hope. The popular bar, Tia’s, (not affiliated with the Marriott, but lying along its north side) has tentative plans to expand. The BRA included a park instead of a parking lot in its recently released waterfront plan. If ELV Associates fixed up their ground floor to make it attractive to retail, it could see another restaurant, an ice cream shop, something better than empty window walls.
This is what public/private partnerships mean—everyone does his or her part. When that happens and the lawsuit gets resolved, the wharf will be ready for rejuvenation. It can’t come soon enough.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.