Protect the waterfront as a public asset

Everyone should feel welcome, not just a select few

ALL OF US who care about ensuring that the public – not just the wealthy, not just luxury condo owners, not just high-priced office tenants – have open access to Boston’s beautiful waterfront are celebrating the Superior Court decisionmade earlier this month. But this is only the start. There is a lot more work to be done to ensure the public has robust and equitable access to Boston’s waterfront. We have the opportunity to turn a new page on waterfront development in the Commonwealth.

As a result of the lawsuit Conservation Law Foundation filed against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court determined that the state’s former Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs was wrong to abandon decades of settled waterfront development precedent and subverted the legislatively protected powers of the Department of Environmental Protection by approving the Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan in 2018. The court ruled that only the Department of Environmental Protection, as the trustee of the public waterfront, has the exclusive authority on behalf of the state to approve or reject such plans.

Since then, developers are claiming that this decision is creating confusion or jeopardizing development projects recently approved or already in process. But they know, just as we do, that this is not about any individual project. This is about the privatization of a public resource and a process that is deeply flawed.  The approval of the Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan was the culmination of a process that was supposed to take into account the needs of the public but instead prioritized the concerns of the politically connected.

Development on Boston’s waterfront is regulated for very good reasons – the waterfront is a public trust asset shared by all residents of Massachusetts, not just the wealthiest few. The Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act, or Chapter 91 of the general laws, has protected the public’s right to access the Massachusetts coast since 1866, including, but not exclusively, the city of Boston’s. Chapter 91 was created not as a complex zoning mechanism, but as an extension of the public trust doctrine which protects the public’s right to access shared natural resources like the foreshore. Protecting that right means that waterfront development must promote public access and benefit – not privatize the shoreline, wall off the water with large towers, or forfeit opportunities for signature waterfront public space.

Everyone has a stake in the future of the Boston waterfront and the decisions about what gets built there cannot remain between developers and politicians to the exclusion of all others. The people of Massachusetts paid tens of billions of dollars to clean up the harbor and make it accessible. Throughout metropolitan Boston, people now pay significant sewer fees to keep it clean. Every Bostonian has made major investments in Boston Harbor and should be able to fully enjoy and take advantage of it.

As the city and state determine next steps, everyone who lives or works in metropolitan Boston should make their voices heard. Waterfront-adjacent neighborhoods should not be the only ones to have a say.  Residents from all over Boston should be able to weigh in on waterfront development proposals and the amenities the public has a right to enjoy. We already know that many black and brown residents of Boston feel unwelcome in the Seaport. We do not want the same outcome for the most visited section of our harbor — the downtown waterfront.

This is a transformative moment for our waterfront, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a world-class waterfront that is inclusive of the diversity of people and cultures that make Boston so special.  We know that this can be done because we made it happen with the Boston Harbor cleanup. The people of Massachusetts proved that we can do hard things and do them well.

Meet the Author
We should reimagine what can and should be built at the heart of the downtown Boston waterfront through the twin lenses of equity and resiliency—framing that was not a key priority when the current harbor plan was developed.  Since then, we have seen a greater commitment from the city to the creation of a more public, equitable, and resilient waterfront through Climate Ready Boston, Imagine Boston 2030, and Resilient Boston Harbor Vision plans and the New England Aquarium’s Blueway Vision. The opportunity to protect the waterfront as a public asset and to make it a place where all Bostonians feel welcome does not come often. Let’s take it.

Deanna Moran is director of environmental planning for the Conservation Law Foundation