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Waterfront Highlights Boston Cityscape Changes Under Menino

BOSTON — In his five terms as Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino has left his mark on city development. He’s emphasized neighborhood projects, but his biggest legacy may be the South Boston waterfront he’s branded the “Innovation District.”

Menino fell short with his proposal to move Boston City Hall down there. Even so, the city’s center of gravity has shifted south and to the water.

A view of the South Boston waterfront during the Big Dig (Courtesy The Fallon Co.)

A view of the South Boston waterfront during the Big Dig (Courtesy The Fallon Co.)

Menino spoke to an audience of community and business leaders a week ago, where he touted new commercial construction projects going up around the city.

“The fact is,” he said, “we have more jobs than ever before in Boston. We have more development under way than ever.”

Two days later, Menino announced he would not run again. He’ll leave Boston’s cityscape looking much different than it did 20 years ago.

“We actually have pictures of it when the mayor was elected. And in 1993, you saw nothing but parking lots and a few buildings,” said Joe Fallon, the man behind the Fan Pier development, looking out from his 15th floor office on the South Boston waterfront.

An artist's rendering of the completed Fan Pier development in the future (Courtesy The Fallon Co.)

An artist’s rendering of the completed Fan Pier development in the future (The Fallon Co.)

Among the buildings you can see from his office today are the Seaport Hotel, the Bank of America Pavilion and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

While Menino was not responsible for some of the big changes, like cleaning the harbor and digging the Big Dig, he saw them as an opportunity. Fallon says Menino pushed to build the convention center on the waterfront.

“In Boston in 1993, the waterfront was completely underutilized,” he said. “Nobody thought of the benefits of the water. And the changes that have occurred since, clearly the water is a focal point and people want to be near the water.”

People drive development. That was Menino’s philosophy, says Kevin Phelan, who heads the Boston office of the commercial real estate brokerage Colliers International. Phelan says the waterfront could have been developed for industry, but Menino wanted it to be a place where people could live and go out, as well as work.

“The title that he came in as, the ‘Urban Mechanic,’ ” Phelan said, “I think over time he deserves to be called an ‘urban visionary.’ Because he did it subtly, and he did it by results, and not just maps and plans.”

For many, Menino was far from subtle. Back Bay urban designer Shirley Kressel criticizes the mayor for being too controlling of Boston’s commercial development.

“He let developers that he likes — which also narrowed the field of developers quite a bit — he let developers that he likes do whatever they want,” Kressel said.

The head of The Boston Foundation, Paul Grogan, says Menino did use the political power he amassed over 20 years in office to put his stamp on the cityscape. But Grogan says you can also call that disciplined development.

“I think it’s more important to look at the results, and the results, clearly, have been very, very good,” Grogan said.

Colliers’ Phelan says for five terms in office now, developers and investors have known who they’re dealing with.

“I think people have had confidence in this city for years now,” he said.

And that continuity could get a jolt with someone new.

Correction: An earlier version of the “after” photo’s caption failed to state that it’s an artist’s rendering that includes a few buildings that are at this point proposed developments.

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