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Downtown View: Troubled Long Wharf

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.

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23 Replies to “Downtown View: Troubled Long Wharf

  1. My wife and I enjoy going to the end of Long Wharf and enjoying all the people (local and tourists) who are taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront. Although the end of Long Wharf is enjoyed by many, it still is a pleasant, free place to contemplate the beautiful harbor. Please do not build another noisy restaurant for young people who drink too much. We already have one of those on the wharf.

  2. Chris: I am in agreement with you. That space is precious to us all, and one of the few wide open spaces to the wide open water. We must preserve this.

  3. I agree with the NorthEndTenant, it is precious to all of us. It’s my little corner of the city where I go to reflect, meditate, and count my blessings…

  4. Let’s face it, if one of the Boston Harbor Association’s corporate contributors proposed a waterfront abattoir, Vivien Li probably wouldn’t object to that either as long as you could scurry past it on the sacrosanct Harborwalk.

  5. Timothy: Do you understand the meaning of abattoir? Gads, how could you have written that. Unacceptable.

    1. For those who are wondering, abattoir is a euphemism for slaughterhouse – the point being that the Boston Harbor Association doesn’t object to much as long as it doesn’t interfere with the Harborwalk. (I’m curious as to what NorthEndTenant thought it meant but I don’t want to see this thread go off on a tangent.)

      1. You just had to say the word — slaughterhouse. We know what a euphemism is, but you could have used a different noun in place of slaughterhouse. So much ick to make a point.

  6. > The article published in today’s North End Waterfront News by Karen Cord
    Taylor is an apparent attempt to resolve the controversy associated with the
    development of Long Wharf. She fails to mention the BRA’s many legal maneuvers
    at costly taxpayer expense to approve construction of a restaurant there. The
    article lacks important details and research.
    > A group which identifies itself as the”North End Ten” has challenged the BRA
    on the basis that the seaward section of Long Wharf was established as a park in
    1989. A plaque can be found there indicates that the park was authorized by the
    City of Boston, the BRA itself, and the National Park Service (NPS) of
    Massachusetts. In fact, the NPS has imposed restrictions on development of the
    park. Ms. Taylor fails to mention this fact. If the BRA is successful, a
    precedent will be established for this powerful agency to develop other parks for commercial use in
    Boston and Massachusetts. Ms. Taylor blithely describes this controversy as ”
    soooo Boston.” It is also soooo financially driven and that is soooo BRA.
    >
    > Armand Thiboutot
    > North End resident

    1. Mr. Thiboutot hits the nail right on the head. The Long Wharf is both a local and national treasure and must be preserved.

  7. Ms. Taylor’s description of the end of Long Wharf certainly doesn’t describe the Long Wharf my family enjoys & loves. “Bleary, dreariness, attracts few people” isn’t a fair description. It’s a magnet for our visitors…children, grandchildren & house guests. Everyone enjoys the view and watching the activity on the harbor. In my opinion it’s one of the most visited areas on the waterfront, I love watching the sail boats in the harbor, visiting with tourists and those visiting from the suburbs… so excited to have discovered such a beautiful spot in the City. I’m there several times a week and I’m never alone, unless I’m on an early morning walk. A beautiful sculpture and/or some additional benches would be a welcome addition. A restaurant would be a blight on the area.

  8. Hopefully they will post this (mine are always deleted for some reason). Just let the BRA put Doc’s restaurant in the wasted space of long wharf. Most want it except for 10 people.

    1. There are many who don’t believe that parks and open spaces are wasted space. In fact they are the jewels of our city, and should be cherished and protected as such.

      The amount of public money that the BRA has spent on this case, could have been put to better use, by making improvements to the park. Better signage, more landscaping, and a few tables and chairs, would be a good place to start.

      1. And there are just as many who think that a portion of that space is better suited as a restaurant and are sick of the public money that is wasted due to these nine people.

    2. Since when is open space next to a body of water that people can enjoy considered “wasted”? I’m sure toomuchfreetime has never ventured a walk to the space.

    3. they probably get deleted because you are deliberately trying to incite an online riot with an outrageous comment, as you are with your post here. i agree with marie b’s comment that parks and open space are jewels in a city (and don’t tell me how I should move t the country so if i like open space so much!)

      1. Anyone who riots after hearing someone claim that the majority of people aren’t against the restaurant needs to get their perspective in check.

  9. Can anyone think about anything else but Restaurants? I agree with Chris, we need peaceful places to walk and enjoy
    the scenery and serenity. The entire No. End is a Tourist Trap, we can’t walk on our own sidewalks, we are pushed, shoved, and
    subjected to trash at every corner. If the BRA is this bored and they want to spend Tax Payers Money, let them do
    an over hall on our City Hall, it looks like a Concrete Prison and could use a Face Lift. Let them spend the money
    on Paint, Art Work, but leave the Waterfront area alone. The City already took far too much away from residents, and
    are always looking for more. When is Enough, Enough?

    1. Maybe a health club? It’s not like this area lacks places to eat. Could use some places to work off the pounds so people won’t need wide places in order to get around.

  10. At various times I’ve needed to use the restroom at the Landing Bar on Long Wharf (owned by Boston Harbor Cruises) and the ground floor of the Marriott Long Wharf adjacent from Tia’s. Needless to say, both places looked like war zones. it’s the first impression to our tourist community in most cases and a sheer embarrassment to see that both of these major waterfront establishments don’t seem like they give a crap (no pun intended). -MB

  11. I usually don’t comment on comments, but these amuse me. And confuse me. Most of these comments are still focused on the end of the wharf. But the point of my column was NOT about the end of the wharf, although I do see it as wanting. My point was the rest of the wharf — properties of private owners and the BRA — are the real travesty here. This historic wharf has been neglected by all parties. The ten people and the BRA can have their fights. But the focus should broaden to the wharf as a whole and what would make it a better place to be. Karen

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