What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.
City plans park for Ft. Point ChannelAttractions in, alongside water would recast industrial strip
By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff, 5/29/2002
Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday announced plans to transform industrial Fort Point Channel into the city's next great parkland, a place where boardwalks wind along the water's edge and kayaks and floating art displays compete for space in the narrow waterway, which runs a mile inland from Boston Harbor.
"This plan will bring us one step closer to realizing the full potential of our waterfront," Menino said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday outside the soon-to-be-expanded Children's Museum, an anchor attraction for the project, which is scheduled to be finished in 2010.
While pieces have been in the works for years, yesterday's proposal is the first to link recreational use of the water with greater pedestrian access along its edges. The move forges a cohesive vision for an area that is catching up with the more ballyhooed -- but now slowed -- development along the neighboring South Boston Waterfront.
The announcement comes as a confluence of development projects in and around the channel district gets underway, including the Midway multiuse project along A Street, a hotel and residential development at 500 Atlantic Ave., office space at 470 Atlantic Ave., and the Silver Line, the bus route that will carry riders from South Station to the new convention center.
The hope is to piggy-back the commercial and waterfront development, with each working to draw tourists and residents to what planners say will be a "Boston Common on the Water."
The plan relies on almost no city dollars, and instead looks to area property owners and developers to provide $11 million to extend harborwalks and build docks and floating walkways. Although they have not yet secured that financing, the plan's authors say they have no doubt they will.
"It's coming," said Patricia Foley, executive director of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a nonprofit advocacy group. "When developers see how the [channel] waterfront has been activated, they will want to contribute to the infrastructure."
But others question the soundness of relying on developers, particularly at a time of economic sluggishness, when projects like the $1.2 billion Fan Pier development -- a mixed-use development on the nearby South Boston Waterfront - are on hold.
"We want to make sure the developers cough up the money," said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association.
Li said the first real test will come at 470 Atlantic Ave., a renovated office building recently sold by Modern Continental Enterprises Inc. to GE Capital Corp., a pension fund. Under the state's permitting requirements, Li said, the owner must provide waterfront amenities within two years. The question is whether they will hew to the city's guidelines.
"This will be the first test of what developers will agree to," Li said. "Will it be meaningful and significant, or will it be something more minor?"
The channel plan does not define future waterfront uses, but rather offers a list of possibilities, including water taxis, shuttles to East Boston and Charlestown, and floating barges with art displays or theater offerings.
Currently there are only two access points to the channel: behind the Barking Crab Restaurant, at the Neptune Marine Services dock adjacent to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge; and off the Congress Street bridge next to Russia Wharf, where a ramp allows riders onto a water taxi.
In the 19th century, the channel was a thriving waterway, but traffic died down in the 20th century as vehicular bridges choked off access for boats.
Under the plan, each section of the waterfront would have a distinct character, with the Hub of the Channel -- the northernmost tip where it spills into Boston Harbor -- the site of heavy-hitting tourist anchors like the Children's Museum and the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum, as well as restaurants and open spaces. The Seawall Basin, from the Summer Street bridge to the Dorchester Avenue bridge, would support recreational boating and offer a mile-long loop for jogging and bicycling. The South Bay Urban Industrial Wild section, from the Dorchester Avenue bridge to the West Fourth Street bridge, would provide more recreational space, including the new Cabot Cove Park now under construction as part of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project.
But recreational water use is contingent on better water quality in the harbor, where the state now plans to eliminate 95 percent of untreated sewer outflows by 2005, with more improvements by 2007.
Some harborwalks are already under construction as part of the Big Dig, including a 2,500-foot-long walkway on the channel's east side, fronting the Gillette Co. property. Other swaths remain undeveloped and would require infilling.
The current plan provides for no additional parking, though city officials say it could be added in the future.
The project has the unusual backing of both environmental activists and artists, many of whom moved into the area in the 1970s but have felt under siege with the recent development. The Boston Redevelopment Authority estimates that 500 artists still live in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood, though artists say the number has fallen since rents crept up in the late 1990s.
Still, some joined city officials yesterday in lauding the waterfront development plan.
"This goes a long way in ensuring public access to the waterfront," said Steve Hollinger, a Fort Point Channel artist and member of the Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design. "It provides for organic evolution."
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com.