The waterfront is for all

Officials cater to wealthy in access and development along Boston’s harbor

Bradley M. Campbell

WALKING ALONG THE Boston Harbor waterfront today, it is clear that the area has come a long way from the days when the harbor was an open sewer and an elevated highway cut off the water from the rest of the city. For decades, neglected waterfront properties created few jobs, paid little in taxes, and provided virtually no benefit to the public.

This all changed as the harbor was cleaned up and the highway was replaced with the Rose Kennedy Greenway, efforts that took years and cost the public more than $19 billion. Suddenly, land that once consisted mainly of parking lots became some of the most valuable real estate in the country. Modern towers with offices, luxury condos, restaurants, and retail space seemed to spring up almost overnight. These properties now demand the highest prices and attract the wealthiest owners and renters.

Amid this flurry of construction and reinvention, an important point has been lost: The waterfront belongs to the public. Since the 17th century, everyone in Boston – not just the wealthy – has had a legal right to the use of the lands surrounding the harbor.

Instead, the city of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have pushed for a waterfront that ignores these public rights in favor of high-end restaurants and luxury condos. In response to this alarming trend, Conservation Law Foundation has filed a lawsuit to protect these rights that have been guaranteed for generations.

We’re in court to stop Boston’s recently-approved Municipal Harbor Plan because it disregards state laws that protect the public’s rights in tidelands and the waterfront.

Let’s be clear: CLF doesn’t want to stop thoughtful, responsible development – it is just the opposite. We believe these plans must be made with full public input and with public rights as the guiding principle, not just the trailing afterthought. CLF’s legal challenge is not about any individual project. Rather, it is about ensuring that the city and state honor protections that have been observed for hundreds of years, instead of undermining them in favor of satisfying the short-term visions of real estate developers.

The municipal harbor planning process was intended to allow cities and towns some flexibility in waterfront development that balanced high standards for public access with private projects. Strict rules on maximum heights, minimum public open space, and public participation in planning are all required before such developments can be approved.

However, this process has become the loophole by which developers and their political supporters evade those public trust responsibilities when gaining approval for their properties. Even the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs acknowledged in his approval of Boston’s plan that the public was largely shut out of the planning process. Instead of the public-private development partnership that the regulations intended, the public is simply getting shortchanged.

No one is opposed to smart waterfront development that replaces the crumbling warehouses and dirty parking lots that once lined the area. Some might argue that any development is better than unsightly, out-of-place structures such as the Harbor Garage. I share a sense of urgency about renewing sites like that one, but the public should not have to settle for just anything. In fact, every time the public settles for less than what is legally required, the rights to these waterfront lands are diminished for generations to come.

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Unfortunately, this has already happened in the South Boston Seaport. Most of the area is now a walled-off, overcrowded playground for the wealthiest Bostonians. Families from Dorchester, Mattapan, South Boston and East Boston don’t feel welcome setting up for a weekend picnic on sites they are legally entitled to use.

By enforcing the rules protecting the public, we will avoid this mistake and empower planners to give Boston a welcoming, world-class waterfront. The billions the public has invested and the centuries of law protecting the waterfront as a public trust demand no less.

Bradley M. Campbell is president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.