Real work starting now at Pier 5

Preserve open space -- but how and for what?

THE BOSTON PLANNING and Development Agency’s decision to reject the three proposals advanced for privatization of Pier 5 in Charlestown is welcome news, but now the real work begins.

The community succeeded in blocking the privatization and redevelopment of the pier and now we need to come up with a better alternative. The Boston Planning and Development Agency has expressed a willingness to allow the community to find a solution for the future of  this rundown pier at the head of Boston harbor and at the heart of  the Charlestown Navy Yard’s waterfront. The agency seems open to the idea of a creative public open space, but hasn’t offered to foot the bill for what might be needed. Now is the time for the community to come together and find a solution worthy of the pier’s legacy.

A popular misconception is that the only practical solution for the neglect of Pier 5 is its complete demolition and replacement with something new. That idea was born of the desire either to construct a large structure over the water or the contrarian approach to remove the pier to claim its overwater footprint for densely placed floating housing. With either of these two objectives, full demolition of the pier became prerequisite step number one.

We at the Pier 5 Association believe the best use of the pier is to preserve the open space for all. Preservation of this space as an outdoor destination, as a park with only small-scale construction and structural reinforcement, is a preferred approach. Selective opening of the hardened surface to expose the underlying marine environment for educational and recreational purposes would complement this approach.

The pier is a two-acre parcel that has had a front row seat to not only the history of our nation but also the transformation of tidal marshes and wetlands into an early economic engine in the industrialization of America connecting multiple inland waterways to the shipping channels of the Atlantic. The pier has witnessed the post-Cold War ecological recovery of what was a tepid cesspool at its nadir and the ongoing transformation of a reactivated waterfront. Now with global warming and rising sea levels, additional future transformations of the Boston waterfront will be necessary. Pier 5 can play a role in this transformation.

The planet faces the challenge of climate change. Temperatures are going up, the remaining continental glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. The footprint of Pier 5 itself can do little to protect Charlestown or Boston from future inundation, and the aquatic features living below the pier will not restore the ecosystems of the working harbor to their precolonial splendor.

This space, however, visited by millions of visitors from around the world as an iconic stop on the Freedom Trail adjacent to the inner harbor ferry dock and the Boston Historic Park, can do far more by helping to teach core principles fundamental to a proud history and a sustainable future.

The future Pier 5 can educate with real world examples of the emerging battle of climate change.  The power of the water and its tidal range is plainly evidenced here—these are all clues to the challenges and opportunities associated with increasing rains and rising sea levels. These are lessons that our next generation of residents and visitors must appreciate if creative and sustainable solutions are to keep our small city the world class destination and model for inclusive sustainable urban living with waterfront access to all that we at the Pier 5 Association believe it should be.

A sketch of a vision for Pier 5.


Additional engineering studies are needed to identify constraints and opportunities resident in the existing structure, but the pier’s skeleton is a marvel of the industriousness of the nation and the Charlestown community in responding to the crisis of world war. That effort and its memory must not be forgotten by future generations.

We believe that neglected federal infra-structure of iconic significance would be an appropriate target for infrastructure spending, and that near term opportunity must not be missed. Funds earmarked to address the neglect of Pier 5 and the adjacent hardened shore should be sought. Furthermore, special fees paid to the Boston Planning and Development Agency and its predecessor, in association with real estate transactions involving the redeveloped property in the Navy Yard, have contributed millions of dollars to the agency’s operating budget and some of those dollars should be returned to this neighborhood for this cause.

A broad coalition of community partners should come together to formulate a vision for the pier. The pier should be a target of philanthropic funding, and efforts completed in parallel to other priorities in Charlestown.

Meet the Author

Christopher Nicodemus

Research physician with focus on experimental therapeutic immunology/ Principal , AIT Strategies
The cultural history of this location can be fully visualized from the end of Pier 5. There’s the  Old North Church, Paul Revere’s Landing, the USS Constitution, and the Bunker Hill Monument at the top of Breeds Hill. There’s Building 197, a former electronics lab that was central to the development of sonar technology in World War II. And then there’s  the steel structure of Pier 5 itself, which served the US naval fleet. All are within view.

The new pier needs a name. Some have suggested Patriots’ Point, Pier 5 Charlestown, and Head of Boston Harbor as possible names. Perhaps others should be considered as well, but this is a worthy start on the pier’s next great next chapter.