The pier is where the project Boston East planned to be built. (Photo by Carl Mueller)
By Cheng Linjing and Carl Mueller
The East Boston Master Plan of 2000, envisioned by city officials and community organizations, promised a surge of housing development along the waterfront. Yet today acres of vacant land remain. Many of the proposed projects lost their permits while trying to get financing; others remain stuck in the approval process.
Along the Chelsea Creek on East Boston’s northern shore lies the site of the proposed Boston East development, 14 acres of vacant land on 102 to 148 Border Street. The field has shin-high sprouts of grass. On its tideland stand clusters of eroded wooden pillars. Slightly to the south, worn-out boats are turned upside-down in the mud like seashells.
Eastie resident and Northeastern University Law professor Estrella-Luna pointed at the open land and said, “This whole area was all industrial up until 1960s. I have documents proving that it has been abandoned since at least 1964.”
The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Boston East Community Development Committee, and residents alike, hope to fill in some of the remaining waterfront properties in the city with condos, affordable units and hotels. Yet, whatever is proposed, must follow outdated guidelines.
The Federal Management Act has areas in 18 coastal cities saved for water-related industries. East Boston is one of the clusters of the Designated Port Areas in Boston Harbor.
In accordance with federal law, a Massachusetts regulation that protects East Boston’s character as a harbor was enacted in 1978. Today, it is still marking boundaries in its land and expelling non-water industries.
Urban developers like Trinity Financial have gone through years of discussions with the Department of Environmental Protection to develop the empty lands on Border Street. The strips of land, under the Waterways Regulation, are reserved for water industry and related projects use only. Today, the lands are still waiting to be claimed for development.
At the site of the proposed Boston East development, Estrella-Luna looks to the empty field on Border Street. “This land, all the way over there, up to the blue building, most of this are DPAs, this means that most of the land is only going to be used for water-dependent uses, things like the tugboats docked behind Shaws, or marine repair, or fish processing.”
“They (Boston East) had to go to the state to get them to consolidate the DPAs so that all of this land can be used for housing development.”
Only the state can rezone the Designated Port Areas.
“They haven’t been looking into it for years,” said Valerie Gingrich, the Boston Harbor regional coordinator of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management.
The Massachusetts Coastal Zoning Management, the department in charge of waterfront zoning, has not re-zoned the land since 2002.
According to the 2002 DPA Boundary Review, 66 acres of East Boston land and water is DPA. Whereas the entire land area of East Boston is a total of 3,008 acres, and only 15 of those acres are fully committed to maritime industrial use. The remaining 51 acres are committed to small, marine construction companies and mixed-use marine industrial and non-marine industrial facilities.
The Waterways Regulation, specifies the type of projects that can be developed, including project size and design. It requires the non-water-dependent projects to provide at least one facility supporting “water-dependent activity.” The Department of Environmental Protection oversees this and issues licenses. As a result, Portside at Pier One, a housing development that is currently being built on Massport land classified as DPA, added ferries to its design. The ferries have not yet been put into use.
These regulations contradict a vision of East Boston’s revival. A plan to fulfill aspirations of community leaders looking to make the area desirable to investors and newcomers.
Sal LaMattina, the City Councilor representing East Boston, said he wants to focus on developing the waterfront. He said, “My goal as chairman of the City Council Committee on Economic Development, is to focus on the waterfront, the Boston Harbor. I think we have a beautiful waterfront, but we don’t really use it. My job over the next two years is to hopefully get waterfront development.”
Yet, between the goals of community leadership stand these dated regulations.
The economy has changed since the passing of Chapter 91 in 1978. East Boston no longer relies on the use of it’s waterways. The last ferry to and from East Boston ceased operation in 1952 . As time changed, ferry transportation had became nonessential due to the implementation of the T to East Boston in 1904 and the Callahan Tunnel in the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, East Boston no longer relies on fishing, shipping, or any of its old supporting industries as it did as recently as the 1960’s.
Antonio Di Mambro of the Boston based design and planning firm, Antonio Di Mambro Plus Associates, PC., said the city needs to modernize.
“The fish are not here anymore. People don’t come to America by boat anymore, they come by plane. What the heck are we doing?”
“Those laws were well intentioned, but laws are propagated to be broken. What happens with laws is they get on the book and no one questions them anymore and once in awhile society has to question.”
He believes the time to question these laws is now.
East Boston is in a shift away from an industrial area. For example, in 1970 the area had 29 major firms in apparel and metal machinery. Today the number is down to 19 major firms.
East Boston was originally a center of clippership building. It’s long history of maritime based industry is apparent in the vacant warehouses that still stand behind the shopping center at Central Square on Border Street.
Residential buildings mushroomed on land previously used for warehouses for imports and exports received through shipping transport. The pattern of redevelopment emerged as the community has called for it.
Robert Schmidt, leader of the Maverick Landing Community Group, said, “I would like to see more small businesses and more department stores.” He favored the many restaurants in the city that are opened by immigrants coming from various countries, “It’s very positive that people coming here to start small businesses, especially people were coming from Central America, or from countries that might have been in political problems.”
“I moved here at the very end of all of that. I do remember that there was a lot of industry on the water. And now, of course, everything has changed. They are trying to develop because of this beautiful skyline,” said Schmidt.
Estrella-Luna quoted her 2013 survey of East Boston community sentiments on redevelopment. The results showed people believed the crime rate would go down as the empty fields are redeveloped.
As of now, Portside at Pier One is the only development out of the four proposed projects on Designated Port Areas that is currently under construction.
While experts like Di Mambro say there are other factors that prevent the development of these areas like extra construction costs and existence of the airport, this 1978 regulation is an additional hurdle to developers and city leaders looking to turn East Boston into a thriving neighborhood.