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Looking Out: Measuring The Greenway’s Success As Gateway To The Waterfront

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Greenway District Planning Study: Shadow Study--Based on Utile May 2010 massing.
Information courtesy of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Graphic by Jesse Costa/WBUR.

BOSTON — At one time in Boston’s history, the harbor was the city’s commercial and cultural center — crowded with shippers, fishermen and people doing business with them. But what is Boston Harbor today? In the first of a summer-long series that takes a fresh look at the waterfront and islands, “Looking Out: A New View Of Boston Harbor,” we start on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

The Greenway is the crown jewel of the Big Dig. It was supposed to be many things: A parkway, a museum center, a tourist mecca. And it’s envisioned to be the gateway to Boston Harbor.

But, many years and millions of dollars later, is it meeting that promise? We went down to the fountain on the Greenway and asked: Does this feel like the gateway to the waterfront?

Here’s the sort of thing we heard:

“Yes, because of the breeze. But I wouldn’t say you can actually see it.”

“You can’t see much. You can hear the horns of the boats.”

“You can smell it. It’s in the air. Whether you can see it or not.”

Feel it. Hear it. Smell it. But we didn’t hear anything about actually seeing it — the blue water, with boats sliding by. Which left us wondering: Exactly how much water can you see from the Greenway?

We asked city officials. They said they never studied it and didn’t know. So we decided to find out.

Kairos Shen, Boston’s chief city planner, looks at plans for the Greenway in his City Hall office. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

We bought a measuring wheel — one of those rolling sticks that police use to calculate distances. We can’t exactly vouch for its accuracy, as it cost us a whopping $10, but we figured it would at least give us some sense of how much or how little water view you get from the Greenway.

And we started walking … and wheeling. Starting outside South Station, we measured the distance to the North End, at Christopher Columbus Park, where there are no doubt great waterfront views.

Here’s what we found: There’s a lot in the way. Office buildings, a hotel, a garage, the stockade fence in front of the Harbor Tower, even trees can really block the view. Over the course of our journey — 3,474 feet — only one-fifth of the time did we have any kind of view of the water. And for less than 150 feet did we actually get a good, steady view of the harbor front.

Kairos Shen, the chief planner for the city, admits there is a lot more to be done. “We have to, wherever possible, expand the openings to the harbor,” he says.

But he says there is a prime piece of real estate on the waterfront that could be developed to open up the view. The Harbor Garage, right next to the New England Aquarium.

Developer Don Chiofaro stands on the Greenway near the Harbor Garage, a structure he hopes to tear down and erect two tall towers in its place. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

The developer has a plan to tear it down and build two huge towers in its place, with a walkway running between them to the harbor. In the developer’s words, “the opportunity here is to create a large opening — a hundred-foot wide opening — that draws people through the building so that you can find the water and you can use the water.”

Sounds almost perfect. Except the developer is Don Chiofaro, who is white hot as far as city officials are concerned. He’s earned a reputation for treating real-estate development like a contact sport.

In fact, Chiofaro has ruffled the feathers of Mayor Thomas Menino to the point that the mayor wasn’t even willing to discuss the matter with us — much less engage with Chiofaro himself.

Which is too bad, from the perspective of people we met on the Greenway, looking over at the old garage. As one woman told us: “I wouldn’t tear down any historical buildings. But, go ahead, get rid of the garage. Nobody really cares about a garage. I know there’s not a lot of parking in Boston, but…”

The complaint from city officials is that Chiofaro wants to build too tall. His plan calls for twin towers reaching up to 625 feet — so tall, officials say, that they’ll cast long shadows on the Greenway.

Chiofaro calls the shadow argument a red herring and says the city is missing an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. “We’re going to change the view from the harbor as you look back to the city,” he says, “we’re going to create an iconic structure that’s going to help define, symbolize what the city is.”

“When the state was doing the Big Dig, they told us the Greenway would be Disneyland and the Champs-Élysées.”
– Peter Meade, Greenway Conservancy chairman

But Shen, chief city planner, says iconic or not, he has no intention of letting one developer hijack Boston’s skyscape, even if it opens up a water view.

That’s why Shen asked us not to measure the success of the Greenway in inches and feet alone.

“The notion here is not how many feet of opening you would get of the water’s edge,” he says. “The question is where are they and are they in the right places. In some cases, tight but very, very appropriately located openings can have much greater impact.”

Peter Meade, who watches over the park from his perch as Greenway Conservancy chairman, takes it further, saying it’s not even necessarily about people seeing water. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be a gateway and it can’t be a place where people stop to get to the water,” he says.

Most importantly, Meade says, people need to stop thinking about the Greenway as the harbor gateway, and start thinking of it as a gateway.

“There’s been too much put on the Greenway,” he says. “When the state was doing the Big Dig, they told us that the Greenway would be Disneyland and the Champs-Élysées. We can’t be the only gateway to the harbor. There have to be multiple gateways to a great harbor that we have.”

Use of the Greenway is on the rise. Praise has been heaped on the new food vendors who recently opened shop, Wi-Fi access is coming and soon there will be new outdoor furniture.

You’ll never dip your toes in salt water there. But the Greenway’s success is growing, inch by inch.

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