Rethink governance of the East Boston waterfront

Current state oversight is blocking housing, climate improvements

THERE’S A NEW KIND of “tragedy of the commons” occurring on the shores of East Boston. It pits fear of luxury condo development against public access and climate resiliency measures. And it includes state governance relics that are unable—or unwilling—to meet the needs of the present.

The “tragedy of the commons,” coined by ecologist Garret Hardin in the 1960s, warns of “over exploitation” of common resources. The classic story describes over-grazing by private herders on public lands.

What do you call it when a community’s interest in public benefits runs up against a common resource threat such as sea level rise and flooding, a shared interest in equitable access to the water, and government policy that contributes to neither?

Today, that is the case in East Boston. Massachusetts decided in the late 1970s to preserve and protect water-dependent industrial uses, a laudable goal, by restricting use of certain coastal and tidal areas to only such uses. These restricted areas, called Designated Port Areas, or DPAs,  remain regulated by the state’s office of Coastal Zone Management  today. The 10 DPAs in the Commonwealth span portions of the coast between New Bedford and Gloucester. There are several DPAs in Boston Harbor, including the East Boston DPA.

The East Boston DPA consists of four fragmented areas. Only two of these areas are actively used for marine industrial activity. One area to the far north on Border Street is home to Boston Towing and Transportation and its tugboats, barges, and cranes used for marine construction. The other area is home to the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, a wonderful mix of vessel repair operations, maritime activities, and retail operations like Downeast Cider. The landowners of these sites are committed to growing their maritime businesses within the DPA framework.

The other two areas in East Boston that are within the DPA contain little to no maritime industrial activity. These neighborhoods have changed substantially over the past 40 years. One area is home to a Shaw’s Supermarket, a McDonald’s, and the retail center adjacent to Central Square and abuts the Mario Umana Academy Elementary School. The other DPA area is nestled between The Eddy and Boston East residential developments.  The former site of some limited maritime activity, this small parcel has been unused for many years and has been unable to attract any new marine industrial tenants.

The owners of properties in these two interior DPA areas are seeking to be removed from the DPA restrictions for several reasons: public access to the water can be developed; commercial interest in the site would support clean up and investment; and site improvements could help achieve climate change resiliency efforts in Boston Harbor, protecting the adjacent neighborhood.  All of this could be memorialized in the new Municipal Harbor Plan for East Boston that Mayor Michelle Wu has called for. But none of these public benefits are likely to happen, or are even legally possible, given Coastal Zone Management’s prescriptive regulations for DPAs.

In 2020, the Boston Planning and Development Agency requested a review of the 45-year-old boundaries of the East Boston DPA in accordance with its neighborhood planning. Coastal Zone Management determined that because three of the four areas currently host maritime industrial uses, they were ineligible for a boundary review. This decision makes sense for the Boston Harbor Shipyard and the Boston Towing and Transportation property on Border Street. But it is puzzling that Coastal Zone Managment found the Liberty Plaza retail and commercial center ineligible for review for the same reason. Coastal Zone Management performed a full internal review of the fourth area, Border St. South, and recommended that it also stay in the DPA.

Coastal Zone Management made this latter recommendation based on four criteria: that the land had a shoreline usable for industrial uses; the land is reasonably proximate to established road or rail networks; the land had a topography conducive for industrial use; and that the land is predominantly industrial or capable of becoming industrial.

The reality is that while the shoreline is “usable” for industrial uses, none have been located there since 2013. The neighborhood roads are too small and narrow for trucks of any significant size to access. The low-lying and flat topography may be ideal for industrial uses but make the area a flood pathway to the neighborhood. The land’s location between two major residential properties means the city will never logically permit construction of major industrial use there.

For years, efforts to market the shoreside parcels for water dependent use have failed to attract new marine businesses. These sites largely sit vacant and or underutilized, and adjacent parcels within the Coastal Zone Managemednt-prescribed DPA are used for commercial purposes with no real connection to a marine economy. A Coastal Zone Management final recommendation to keep the DPA boundaries as is effectively memorializes this situation for a minimum of five years (by regulation) and runs counter to any public benefit, locally driven economic development needs, and the city’s climate resiliency efforts.

These two “interior DPA sites” have been identified by the city as critical for controlling rising tides and flooding in the Sumner and Callahan Tunnels and Central Square neighborhood. If these stay in the DPA, as Coastal Zone Management has preliminarily determined, the owners can’t support or capitalize improvements to address rising tides and flooding and a Municipal Harbor Plan cannot be developed to require the resiliency, open space, and affordable housing the community wants and needs. So, in the apparent interest of preserving sites for theoretical water-dependent uses, these sites, and East Boston’s precious waterfront, are left to continue deteriorating. No other neighborhood in the city is treated this way.

It’s time to rethink the governance of the waterfront. The state is holding fast to its vague 45-year-old water-dependent use criteria. The DPA program was designed to preserve and promote maritime economic development. But today it is being used in East Boston to derail vital, climate-resilient improvements and stop all development, including affordable housing, amid a housing crisis.

Meet the Author

Tom Balf

Founder and president, OceanVest LLC
Let’s change that. Let’s take up Mayor Wu’s clarion call for collaborative, community-based models in which new frameworks and new rules of the game are contemplated. To do so, the Office of Coastal Zone Management must change course in its boundary review and recognize that the Central Square and Border Street South waterfront areas should rightfully be freed of the DPA designation due to their small lot sizes, shallow water depths, transportation problems, and location within an environmental justice neighborhood. Only then can we develop a new plan for East Boston’s waterfront and avoid a tragedy of the commons.

Tom Balf is the founder and president of OceanVest, L.L.C, where he works with individuals, businesses, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and government to turn the healthy ocean imperative and current fisheries challenges into opportunities for learning, engagement, and entrepreneurship. He is the former Eexecutive director of Maritime Gloucester, a working waterfront museum and educational facility.