Seaport: Boondoggle or model for future?
Coastal development vulnerable, but city says it’s ready
IS THE GLASS half full or half empty?
The biggest Boston building boom in decades has been playing out in the city’s Seaport, a once forlorn 1,000-acre stretch of warehouses and parking lots at the edge of downtown that has seen glassy towers sprout like weeds in recent years.
While political leaders strut proudly over the billions of dollars of new development going up in the district, a slightly different note is being sounded by some planning experts, whose reaction to all the building seems to be, “Are these people out of their minds?”
The latter view is certainly the one advanced by a Bloomberg Businessweek article — at least in its attention-grabbing headline, “Boston Built a New Waterfront Just in Time for The Apocalypse.”
“No American city has left such a large swath of expensive new oceanfront real estate and infrastructure exposed to the worst the environment has to offer,” the article says, attributing that take to Chuck Watson, owner of Enki Research, which assesses risks for insurers, investors, and governments.
Since 1980, the article says, Boston has experienced more high-tide flooding than any other city along the East Coast. Most ominously, William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells the authors that Boston Harbor could be 2 to 4 feet higher by the end of the century.
“There is a lot of hubris,” Spencer Glendon, of the Woods Hole Research Center, which studies climate change, tells Bloomberg Businessweek. “There is nothing more exciting for a city government than seeing lots of tall buildings going up and going to lots of ribbon-cuttings. Everyone knows South Boston keeps flooding, and they keep building.”
Getting a hard-to-resist mention in the story: The January 2018 image of a Dumpster floating down a flooded street in the what was then called the Innovation District, which the Herald promptly renamed the “Inundation District” in its headline on the storm.
The alarms sounded by the article headline and opening making it seem as if development has taken off in the Seaport with leaders oblivious to the possible disaster looming on the literal and figurative horizon. But that’s not actually the case. The piece goes on to detail all the ways that Seaport development is trying to plan for such risks, including housing critical infrastructure on higher floors and planning berms and other barriers against future flooding.
Coincidentally, as the article posted yesterday and started generating online chatter, Jim Rooney was tweeting from New York City, where the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and other chamber staff were on a “climate resiliency-themed” City to City trip.
City to City is a program the chamber runs to learn from other cities and bring best practices back to Boston. Rooney says New York City is very focused on climate resiliency efforts, where he says the scale of things means the “challenges, costs, and risks are 10x those of Boston.” While the trip was aimed at learning things the business leaders could bring back home, Rooney made it seem as if it’s Boston that has a thing or two to teach other cities.
Turning the axiom on its head, it’s a case where the hopeful view is to look at the glass as half-empty.