Developing Widett Circle is short-sighted

We should instead use the area to bolster climate resilience

BOSTON MAYOR MARTY WALSH is urging the Boston City Council to declare surplus several parcels of city property along Frontage Road, including Widett Circle. This would allow the land to be sold off for development, perhaps for a soccer stadium.

With the memory of the Winthrop Square garage process still fresh, we say slow down. This is public property, owned by all residents of Boston, and a rigorous, thorough, and transparent process must be followed so that Bostonians can be confident that the benefits from the parcels’ development accrue to the public and to future generations, not to the private profits of connected developers.

Widett Circle is one of the lowest-lying parcels in the city, and it already floods regularly. During last winter’s extreme storms anyone unlucky enough to have their cars in the city’s tow lot, which sits on the site today, found them partially underwater when they went to collect them. Frontage Road and Widett Circle, like much of Boston, is built on fill. Historically, it was open water, literally “South Bay” – yes, that’s where the shopping center’s name comes from.

And the water is coming back. In November the federal government released the National Climate Report, and its predictions for the Northeast were stark: increased storms, heavier rainfalls, hotter summers, more heat-related deaths, all exacerbated by our aging infrastructure including water, sewer, and storm water systems.

Maintaining low-lying parcels as impermeable surface – i.e. buildings, roads – is risky, and will grow more so. When it rains, water that would have soaked into the ground instead runs off into storm drains. Aging storm drains get overwhelmed, leading to flooding. Even new storm drains cannot handle the volume of the heavier rains in our future, leading to flooding. A built environment means fewer trees and vegetation to absorb water, leading to flooding.

More impermeable surface also exacerbates “heat island effect,” meaning as our summers get hotter, there are fewer trees to provide shade. More storms means more power outages, knocking out air conditioning for those fortunate enough to have it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, pavement increases heat as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit at night. The elderly and infirm are most likely to suffer and die in such conditions; according to the Centers for Disease Control, “extreme heat causes more deaths in US cities than all other weather events combined.”

As sea level rises and chronic flooding increases, it is sometimes suggested that we can “adapt” by locating utilities on upper floors of new buildings. But that’s not going to do much good for those who live or work in those buildings when roads are chronically impassable for daily life, much less for emergency vehicles.

Many low-income Boston residents are already facing dislocation due to gentrification – developing this property could lead to climate-related dislocation as well, as we have seen in other areas around the country, including Miami and Louisiana.

Despite all this, Mayor Walsh appears to be trying to rush the sale of 18 acres of Widett Circle with few requirements for how these parcels could be used to enhance the city’s climate resilience long-term. Why?

It isn’t for lack of information. The city has written a “Climate Ready Boston” report, with detailed maps of flood paths and sea level rise between now and 2100. Boston’s report has become a model for cities around the world. In October, the mayor gave a major speech on climate resilience, and proposed projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars in order to protect the built environment in East Boston, Charlestown, the North End, South Boston, and Dorchester. The plans include nature-based solutions such as parks, and restored wetlands to absorb floodwaters.

At a recent City Council hearing, the Charles River Watershed Association offered a vision of what the city could do with these parcels, including restoring the filled lands to wetlands and daylighting the buried “Bass River.” As an example, a 300-acre wetland could store runoff from a 10-inch storm from over 1,000 acres of the surrounding developed area, protecting existing homes and businesses, including many low -income residents in the South End and Roxbury. It would also provide beautiful green space for recreation or simple contemplation, cleaner air, cleaner water, and facilitate carbon free transportation such as walking and biking into and out of the Seaport and downtown.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Executive director, Charles River Watershed Association
Meet the Author
Boston sea levels have risen nearly a foot since 1921. They are expected to rise another 1.5 feet by 2050. Do the math – many people reading this will still be around by then. By 2100, sea level is expected to be 3 to 6 feet higher, but could be as much as 10 feet higher. Most US babies born today will be alive in 2100. This is not only a problem of the future – it is a problem for today. As Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu pointed out at that hearing, the objective should not be short-term profits but what makes sense for the public good over the next 10 years, 50 years, 100 years and beyond.

When it comes to Frontage Road and Widett Circle, rather than allow development – which likely would have to be abandoned sooner than we think, or would require millions to protect it after it’s built – we should protect public health and invest in climate resilience now.

Emily Norton is executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. Dwaign Tyndal is executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment.