Boston Seaport Renewal Still Just A Blueprint03:22

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There are some shining examples of how the Seaport District is turning into the next hot spot.

One of  them is in the Fort Point area. "This is an Italian restaurant, but very upscale," says Vivien Li, of the Boston Harbor Association, stepping into Sportello. "Just a beautiful place, and this used to be a warehouse."

Other examples are the Institute of Contemporary Art — its attendance has shattered expectations — and the Boston Convention Center, which will soon seek to expand. But these are pockets of success.

"We all were so optimistic 10 years ago that in 2010 this area would really be booming," Lee said. "The fact that it hasn’t moved as quickly I think surprises all of us."

Boston's Seaport District as it looks today and as it would look under the city's development plan.The reason why things have moved so slowly depends on who you talk to. Menino’s challenger, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, says it is Menino’s fault because he’s letting developers sit on unused land and then build what they want.

"We don’t have a city-wide development plan," Flaherty says. "We also don’t have a neighborhood-specific plan, so oftentimes what happens is it really becomes about who you know and which lawyer, which consultant, which developer you’ve hired to develop and to advance your proposal."

But if you talk to Menino’s city planning agency, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, or some private developers, it’s not the mayor but the economy that’s to blame. The weak housing market has meant developers can afford to build offices and hotels, not residences.

THIS THREATENS THE MAYOR'S PLEDGE that a third of the space will be housing. The BRA’s chief planner, Kairos Shen, defends his agency for permitting more office space.

A planned three-story Legal Sea Foods on Liberty Wharf. (Courtesy Boston Redevelopment Authority)
A planned three-story Legal Sea Foods on Liberty Wharf. (Courtesy Boston Redevelopment Authority)

"When there is no market for creating new housing and for people to buy, and that the margins of the deal doesn’t work, it is the responsibility of the agency and the city to make active uses occur in those buildings — which for the near term will be offices," Shen says.

Shen admits the city missed a critical window for building more residential when the market was booming. But he preaches patience and says the area will not be fully developed until 2040.

The restaurant is currently under construction. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
The restaurant is currently under construction. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

"We are impatient. The mayor has been impatient," he said. "But there is something that our impatience does not actually trump: the sort of market forces which we depend on."

On a beautiful fall day, developer Joe Fallon stands in a parking lot on Fan Pier next to the federal courthouse. He looks out over the harbor at what future residents of a condominium will see: sail boats, schooners and fishermen.

He too blames the economy for holding up his six-building project. "If the economy wasn’t in a recessionary period, we’d be moving ahead with a residential building and another building right away," Fallon says.

Fallon has only built one 18-story office building. The city approved two temporary buildings because Fallon thinks it could take 10 years to get the original plan built.

THIS IS NOT WHAT CITY PLANNERS and community leaders agreed to 10 years ago when they came together to create a master development plan for the Seaport.  It’s a blueprint for a new neighborhood with grand waterfront boulevards, parks that link to the Emerald Necklace and a harborwalk along the water.

The mayor endorsed the master plan and has been the driving force behind development in the Seaport — especially the convention center. He’s even proposed moving City Hall there.

But that’s why critics blame Mayor Menino, not the economy. They say he hasn’t used his political might to get more done when he seems to relish his role in city planning.

"I get involved at times because I'm the mayor," Menino says. "People expect me to make my feelings known about development."

But cities under similar economic conditions have made huge strides in development. Pratap Talwar is a principal at Thompson Design Group, a premiere architecture firm that specializes in waterfront areas.  Talwar’s office is in Fort Point, but his company isn’t building anything on the Seaport.

"We know of great cities in this country that have invested large amounts of money very imaginatively in their waterfronts in the last 10 years or so," Tawlar said. "Chicago’s Millennium Park is an example."

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley used city money and donations to build the park, and private developers followed by building hotels and condominiums nearby. The land on the Seaport is owned by private developers or the Port Authority, which doesn’t give the mayor as much control.

THE PIECEMEAL BUILDING TAKING PLACE makes the Seaport look like a suburban office park.

Vivian Lee of the Boston Harbor Association said the goal of a residential neighborhood seems to be lost, because "by moving away from that goal it really undermines the ability to support some of the retail so it will over the long term have a domino effect."

And the political goodwill between the mayor and community members in the Seaport has evaporated.  Several people who used to be involved in the process have become disillusioned because they say the plan is not being followed.

Michele Yeeles still attends the occasional BRA meeting. As a resident of Fort Point and a business owner, she’s disappointed to see hotels trump grocery stores in what she hoped would be a neighborhood by now.

"When you think about a really beautiful neighborhood, waterfront, it is a really strong mix of residential, business, retail, parks," Yeeles said. "I think it’s also something that is acknowledged within the various planning documents — it’s just obviously not fulfilled its full potential yet."

Yet. The BRA and developers say the Seaport will realize this potential eventually. But community members are skeptical the waterfront can turn into a vibrant neighborhood, regardless of who wins the Boston mayoral election.