All may appear calm on the waterfront, but local experts are pointing to several impending challenges currently facing Boston Harbor. The harbor is arguably the city’s most defining characteristic, yet Boston finds itself playing catch up on issues such as water transportation, climate change preparedness and public access through responsible development.
Civic non-profit leaders debated these issues at a media event this week, hosted by public affairs firm Denterlein. Kathy Abbott of Boston Harbor Now, Maliz Beams of the New England Aquarium, and Rick Dimino of A Better City participated with moderator Peter Howe asking the questions.
Boston is “choking on itself” with its crippling traffic situation, said moderator Howe kicking off a lengthy discussion on water transportation. The panelists enthusiastically support ferries and water shuttles as a partial solution, but progress has been slow. Boston Harbor Now’s Kathy Abbott said her organization is corralling a new water transportation study with public and private partners to provide a catalyst for planning and direction. ABC’s Dimino noted that 2,400 private shuttles currently transport employees from Seaport/downtown buildings to North and South Station. Offloading some of that traffic to the harbor could help connect these transportation hubs as well as the waterfront neighborhoods, including Charlestown, East Boston, North End, Downtown and Seaport.
But, who would manage a new water transportation system given the challenges already facing the embattled MBTA? Panelists thought that a special authority could be a solution, to bring together public and private funding. One recent experiment was the Cultural Connector subsidized by a local developer and providing water shuttle service to the ICA (Seaport), Charlestown Navy Yard, and New England Aquarium. [See Cultural Connector Launches on Boston Harbor as New Water Transportation Service]
Public access to the waterfront and responsible development were emphasized by the panelists. State Chapter 91 requirements have been key to the Harborwalk and open space along Boston Harbor. However, the parcel-by-parcel process has created confusion and a mixed bag of requirements. One example cited was the closing of bathroom facilities, often required under Chapter 91. Barriers put in place during Sail Boston were also called out as a failure. BHN is putting together a website to bring some transparency to required public access accommodations.
The Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Plan was criticized by the panelists as “not bringing any real breakthroughs” in terms of public realm planning for new developments. From the standpoint of the New England Aquarium, their Blueway proposal was highlighted by Maliz Beams as forging a vision for NEQ’s next generation. The concept emphasizes the public realm connections between the Greenway and the water’s edge along with a modern aquarium building. Much of the plan depends on a successful negotiation with Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage development. “We’re not there yet,” said Beams referring to how the Aquarium will persevere through the Harbor Garage construction project.
Talk of a Boston Harbor Business Improvement District (BID) emerged from the panel discussion. Recently proposed for the Greenway, BID’s are seen as a funding mechanism to supplement public sources with contributions by abutting private businesses. Boston’s Downtown Crossing BID and those seen across neighborhoods in New York City were cited as being successful.
Climate change is always a primary concern when discussing the future of Boston Harbor. BHN’s Abbott said that not only does the harbor protect the city, but that we need to also “protect ourselves from the harbor.” Panelists cited the urgency of not waiting for the next Hurricane Sandy. There are some building requirements now in place by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), but panelists thought the city needs a mix of both physical barriers and creative ways of “living with water.” This is especially true around areas where water is most likely to surge into urban land areas. Next phase studies by the Barr Foundation and UMass are expected to provide some direction after the recent Climate Ready Boston report.