A towering battle
State approval of a waterfront zoning plan brings controversy
A month ago, the Conservation Law Foundation signaled its concern over state approval of a waterfront zoning plan that would allow a 600-foot tower on the edge of Boston Harbor next to the New England Aquarium.
A letter sent to Matthew Beaton, the state’s environmental affairs secretary, “does not explicitly threaten a lawsuit,” if the zoning plan is not modified, “but it could be a precursor to legal action,” the Boston Globe reported at the time. Like night comes before day, the story might as well have added.
Yesterday, CLF said it has filed notice that it will sue to challenge the zoning plan in court. At issue is the decision by city and state officials to grant a waiver from a state law protecting waterfront areas that limits building heights to 155 feet. Developer Don Chiofaro wants to erect a 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, a project that he has been angling to build for eons.
“The consensus view had long been that development on the waterfront should respect the traditional lines of Boston Harbor architecture, with warehouses and lower lines that step back to taller buildings in the Financial District,” Peter Shelley, senior counsel at CLF, told the Globe. “What [Matthew Beaton] did in the downtown Municipal Harbor Plan was essentially throw that out completely.”
A City Hall meeting last fall with the group’s president, Bradley Campbell, over the group’s objections to a proposed project on Seaport Boulevard got so heated that Mayor Marty Walsh reportedly walked out of the confab. That project had lots of buy-in from community leaders.
Walsh fired off a letter to the CLF board charging that he and his staff were “met by Mr. Campbell with disrespectful, contemptuous, and combative language, and a suggestion that my staff and I were not capable of negotiating appropriate outcomes for the people of Boston and that it was his job to do it.”
CLF settled a suit it filed over that project, with the developer agreeing to pay $13.1 million over 35 years to fund parks and other projects. The challenge to Chiafaro’s tower project says it doesn’t allow for enough open space and builds too high along the waterfront edge, while $14.4 million in community benefits go mostly to renovate a wharf in front of the Aquarium.
For all the talk of CLF as an obstructionist naysayer, it’s hard to argue with its claim that waterfront zoning laws are only useful if they aren’t regularly cast aside.
“With each decision by the state the rules are becoming disregarded more and more,” Campbell told the Globe. “It’s probably time to sort out whether the rules have any force, or if they’re just quaint artifacts of the way things used to be.”In one curious twist, despite the threat of an impending suit, Chiofaro tells the Globe he’s scheduled to meet next week with Campbell.
“We haven’t seen it. We don’t know much about it. But it’s not unexpected,” Chiofaro said of the suit. “It doesn’t leave us much room for a conversation, but we’re going to have one.”