Patronage Over Policy: Why Proposed Project is Bad News for the Boston Waterfront

Deanna Moran

This blog post was originally published on bluemassgroup.com.

Well-connected developers routinely ask regulators to bend and break the rules to maximize building square footage and project profit. The Cronin Group, a well-known Boston-based developer proposing a new mixed-use building at 150 Seaport Boulevard, is no exception.

The site is currently the location of the Whiskey Priest and the Atlantic Beer Garden, both of which will be torn down to make way for the new project. The developer is proposing to more than double the size of the existing lot, encroaching into the South Boston waterway, and leaving little to no open space on-site. If approved, the project will threaten the integrity of the State’s Waterways Regulations and provide minimal public access and open space on the site.

The developer’s overreach is nothing new. What’s remarkable is that the City has turned a blind eye to the unlawful nature of the project. In a proposed amendment to the harbor plan, Mayor Walsh’s Boston Redevelopment Authority is handing out exceptions that not only betray the public interest, but also mock developers who have played by the rules. Support for this project sends the message that if you are a powerful, well-known developer in Boston, the rules don’t apply to you and the Walsh Administration’s focus on climate resilience will take a back seat.

If you look at this proposal quickly on its surface, it is framed exquisitely. However, a closer look reveals that private interests are being prioritized over public benefit. The Cronin Group has done an outstanding job of assembling political allies for this project. They’ve even convinced a large swath of South Boston residents and a lone harbor advocate that the project is in their best interest. But what they propose is nothing short of a super-sized project, apparently born out of a sweetheart deal with the City.

Bigger than just this project is the series of dangerous precedents that it will set for future harbor development. If Cronin’s artful circumvention of our waterfront standards and protections is accepted in this case, there is no law left constraining Seaport development. This is especially alarming given the billions of dollars of new construction underway or proposed in the Seaport, including the impending relocation of General Electric Headquarters to the area. If the City and Commonwealth approve this project, it will invite other property owners to propose similar plans and call for similar exceptions to be made.

The proposed project is a 22-story, 250-foot building that almost completely covers the existing site where the two restaurants now sit. That is about four times the size of the existing structure – it is giant. The prized jewel of their proposal is a Harborwalk connection, which they claim as on-site open space. While the Harborwalk connection would be a great thing, the proposal doesn’t include the walkway on the existing land, and instead proposes to build it out into the water on piles. To top it off, only a portion of the deck will be publicly accessible; the rest will be used by the ground floor tenant for restaurant seating.

CLF recognizes the value in activating and revitalizing the waterfront through strategic, appropriate, and forward-thinking planning and development. But that is not what Cronin has proposed. Projects on the waterfront must weigh private and public benefits. This project does not. This site is capable of accommodating a more appropriately sized building that includes on-site open space (including the Harborwalk connection). However, a middle-ground proposal has not been suggested or considered because the City is disregarding rather than enforcing the rules.

This waterfront has become a patchwork of very good and fairly awful developments, with the difference between the two being the uneven willingness of the City and Commonwealth to stand tough and enforce the rules and protect the public trust. The City, which only weeks ago issued a report highlighting Boston’s vulnerability to climate impacts, needs to insist on sensible, climate-ready projects, and must prioritize the protection of tidelands and the public trust. If the Walsh Administration lacks the will to enforce the law, the Baker Administration’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs and Department of Environmental Protection will have to do it by rejecting this plan amendment and disapproving this project.

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