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Chiofaro’s ambitions grow

But developer’s plan to transform site near Harbor Garage faces numerous obstacles

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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As part of his proposed redevelopment of the Harbor Garage, developer Donald J. Chiofaro wants to redesign a portion of neighboring New England Aquarium by incorporating its IMAX theater into a glittery atrium at the base of his two-skyscraper complex.

The changes would replace the existing plaza and tree-lined park with a waterfront square with landscaping, a fountain, space for food vendors and public art, and a pathway connecting the Aquarium to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

“Our concept sets the table to make the Greenway a much more vibrant area that is truly connected to the waterfront,’’ Chiofaro said in a statement, adding: “Whether we will actually be able to implement any of these good ideas will depend on the will, conviction, energy, and open-mindedness of the stakeholders, most importantly the city and the mayor.’’

But multiple roadblocks stand in the way of Chiofaro’s plan, not least being he doesn’t own the property he proposes to redesign. Also, City Hall remains resolutely opposed to the height of his proposed 45- and 50-story skyscrapers, the tallest of which would be 625 feet. Boston officials have said the buildings should be limited to 200 feet to prevent them from casting shadows over the Greenway and Boston Harbor.

As for Chiofaro’s latest ideas for the area outside his building, city officials said yesterday they would not discuss them until he addresses the concerns over his proposal for the garage site.

“This is yet another distraction from the real issues this project faces,’’ a Boston Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman, Susan Elsbree, said yesterday. “The out-of-scale buildings that are proposed will forever cast long, cold shadows on the Greenway and waterfront parks. The Chiofaro towers are in violation of state, FAA, and city regulations, and no fancy brochure can change the facts.’’

Elsbree reiterated the BRA is still waiting for Chiofaro to respond to the authority’s request, from July 2009, that he provide additional information about the project’s environmental impact, as well as how it would affect legal agreements with neighboring condominium owners who use his parking garage.

Chiofaro said he is working on alternatives to the buildings that might be more acceptable to city officials.

In the proposal for the Aquarium property, Chiofaro indicates a desire to change the tone of what has been an acrimonious debate about his proposal, by inviting neighbors and community groups to a broader discussion about the future of the area. The Aquarium proposal was produced by architect David Dixon, who said it strives to create stronger visual and pedestrian connections among Faneuil Hall, the Greenway, and the Aquarium.

“We have 16 million people visiting Faneuil Hall every year, and only 1.3 million people make it over to the Aquarium,’’ said Dixon, who works for the architecture and planning firm Goody Clancy. “For Boston and its waterfront, that is a huge missed opportunity.’’

Dixon envisioned a space that becomes a central gathering spot on the water, where people could shop, dine, or sit and relax in a more open atmosphere. It would also incorporate the IMAX theater and additional aquarium exhibits into an expansive glass atrium that would serve as an indoor extension of the plaza during the winter.

Still, Chiofaro would need cooperation from the entities that actually own the properties he wants to redesign. The IMAX, for example, is owned by the New England Aquarium, whose chief executive, Bud Ris, said any change in location of the theater would have to be carefully considered during a lengthy public review.

“The IMAX is an extremely valuable asset to the Aquarium in terms of communicating our mission and bringing people to the waterfront,’’ Ris said. He welcomed a discussion about improvements that would make the Aquarium more visible and easier to access for pedestrians and vehicles.

Chiofaro’s proposal would also require dramatic changes to a park in front of the Aquarium that is owned and managed by a Fidelity Investments nonprofit foundation. The foundation bought the property from the city in 2006 and cultivated a small park at the edge of the Greenway. A spokesman for Fidelity declined to comment on Chiofaro’s proposal.

Also affected by the plan would be Harbor Towers condominium owners, located on the other side of Chiofaro’s proposed building. There, he wants to open a food market, cafe, and other shops to serve the residential units in his complex and Harbor Towers.

Some residents of Harbor Towers object to the plans, however, saying Chiofaro refuses to address questions about the size and impact of his project, and ignored the public planning process.

“Instead of Don’s pretend planning, we would prefer to see him respond to the issues raised by the BRA and [state environmental officials] almost a year ago,’’ said Yanni Tsipis, a Harbor Towers resident and consultant on Chiofaro’s proposal to its trustees.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.