Harbor Advocates Call for Care When Planning for Waterfront

As residents of Charlestown and local advocates call for more accessibility to the Town’s forgotten Mystic River waterfront, other advocates are sounding a warning that the industrial port areas – known as Designated Port Areas (DPAs) – should not be overlooked.

Boston HarborNOW (a collaborative which was once the Boston Harbor Association) is warning those in Charlestown and across the inner Harbor to be careful about downplaying the role of industrial port uses on the waterfront.

Jill Valdes-Horwood, director of planning for Boston HarborNOW, said they have issued a report this year and are working on recommendations that will come out next month regarding how to balance the working port with more access to the water that residents want. It should not, she said, be a case of throwing out the industrial uses to re-develop such areas.

“That’s the challenge,” she said. “If you look at Boston’s waterfront, it’s completely built out. There are only so many opportunities and many smaller, more difficult areas are being developed. Then they naturally turn to wanting to have a conversation about vacant parcels in the DPAs. We noticed there are a lot of different conversations and they’re all happening in different rooms. Developers see an empty parcel and say, ‘Why not there?’ There are people in the industry who know the importance of diversifying the waterfront. A vacant parcel to them is not vacant, but an opportunity. These two forces don’t always see eye to eye.”

Valdes-Horwood said Boston’s problem with looking for waterfront land to develop in DPAs and historically commercial areas is not unique. She said virtually every port city in the nation is fighting the forces of development – particularly for housing – in areas that have always been industrial. This is particularly true on the working waterfronts.

“The city is expensive and they need to build more residential properties, and in that context the value of the working waterfront is questioned because the work done there is invisible to the day to day community member who doesn’t see what happens at a place like the AutoPort in Charlestown,” she said. “Charlestown has a lot of interesting uses like the Wind Test facility, the AutoPort. These places are really large employers of folks without higher-end degrees. It clearly provides a lot of good paying blue collar jobs and that’s important to the community that abuts the waterfront. Take away that working waterfront, and you take away those jobs.”

The report released earlier this year by Boston HarborNOW found that more than 25 percent of the land all of Greater Boston’s four DPAs, which includes the Mystic River DPA in Charlestown, are vacant or being used for other commercial enterprises that don’t require waterfront access.

Certain DPAs within Boston’s Inner Harbor are seeing maritime use rates well below 50 percent. The data suggests, she said, that as market demand for waterfront land continues to increase, it will be more challenging to maintain a diverse mix of Harbor uses, raising the question of how the region should plan for and invest in these limited spaces.

She said in the conversations around restoring access to the waterfront for residents, it should be remembered that keeping working waterfronts intact is also important.

“When you pose that question about usage and don’t have the thoughtful and historic background about DPAs, that conversation can be immediately broad,” she said. “DPA regulations are very complex. A big thing about it is there is value in having a continuous working industrial waterfront. When you push a one-off in an area, you run the risk of fragmenting the industrial waterfront. The business gets stronger by consolidating and sharing challenges and sharing solutions together. When we fragment the businesses, it makes it harder for them to coordinate and share plans together. This planning shouldn’t be happening neighborhood by neighborhood but it should be an entire Boston Harbor community conversation amongst all four DPAs.”

One way, she said, that preserving DPAs and promoting access could be achieved is through coastal resilience. In planning to product the industrial waterfront properties, she said flood retention areas could also double as public amenities – an idea that has been championed also by Julie Wormser of the Mystic River Watershed Association, which is running a planning effort in Charlestown right now.

“It’s absolutely where we could achieve that access,” she said.

One of the best examples of providing access alongside the working port is at the Chelsea PORT Park, where a great park exists right next to a major salt storage and shipping operation.

She said the recommendations that come from the report will likely be released in September, and they plan to have a forum to explain the findings.

Boston’s working ports provide key benefits to the region, including by supporting 7,000 jobs directly and 50,000 indirectly and 1,600 businesses either importing or exporting goods. Boston Harbor’s liquid natural gas terminal supplies an estimated 11 percent of New England’s natural gas.

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