Public Rights Violated on Boston’s Waterfront… Again

Battery Wharf Hotel regularly shuts down public spaces for private events – and that’s against the law

Heather Miller

Many of us know that Boston’s waterfront can sometimes feel like it’s a place only for those who can afford luxury condos and exclusive hotels. CLF is working hard to change that. We’re holding waterfront property owners accountable – ensuring they deliver on the public benefits they promised in exchange for approval to build their pricey hotels, office buildings, and condos.

Last week, on a visit to the Battery Wharf in the North End, we found some of the most egregious violations of the public’s rights to access and enjoy the waterfront that we’ve ever seen. Battery Wharf has not only privatized spaces that belong to the public; it has capitalized on them, charging high-end rental fees for areas that are supposed to be available to the public 24 hours a day, free of charge.

This is unacceptable – Battery Wharf Hotel is violating the law and putting private profit ahead of the public’s legal rights.

Public Access Required by Law

In Massachusetts, a state law called the Public Waterfront Act (Chapter 91) protects our rights to access the waterfront. Private developers can only build projects that also provide ample public benefits – for example, restrooms, open space, and walking paths. This tradeoff ensures that private development does not interfere with our legal rights to use these spaces.

To secure state approval to build a private hotel and residences on public tidelands, Battery Wharf Hotel agreed to provide specific public access, amenities, and open space. These benefits include:

  • 24/7 access to the Harborwalk around the entire property and all other open space on the property;
  • 24/7 access to a public viewing area that provides stunning views of Boston Harbor;
  • daily public access to an on-site museum that showcases the maritime history of the area, including the critical role of the U.S. Coast Guard;
  • and publicly accessible restrooms, among other amenities.

Access to each of these areas is free to all. You don’t need to stay at the hotel or eat at the restaurant to enjoy the waterfront here. It is your right to do so.

The site’s museum is supposed to be open to the public daily, but it’s regularly closed for private events. Photo: UNITE HERE Local 26

The Battery Wharf Hotel Is Denying the Public Our Rights

We were dismayed to find that the Battery Wharf Hotel regularly restricts access to public areas for private events like weddings, receptions, and company functions. In other words, the property owner is making a huge profit by renting out areas of the site that belong to the public.

The hotel even advertises the availability of these public spaces for private events on its website and in other marketing materials. For $1,500, the hotel will block off the Harborwalk for a wedding. That means that if you happened to walk along the Harborwalk during that time, you would be told to turn around and find another route, even though you have a right to be there. During wedding receptions, the hotel closes a public viewing area with unique views of the Harbor so it can be used as a private balcony for wedding guests.

The same thing happens at the Coast Guard museum. The public is supposed to have free access from 8am to 9pm daily, but the museum is regularly closed during that time, its exhibits pushed aside or removed altogether to accommodate private events. Other public areas of the site, like the outdoor patio, are also frequently reserved for paying patrons rather than the general public.

A public viewing area at the hotel was blocked by dry cleaning when we visited – hardly the welcome we expected.

Bringing Battery Wharf into Compliance with the Law

Unfortunately, Battery Wharf is not alone. We are seeing a broader trend toward the privatization of public spaces on Boston’s waterfront. Other properties, like the Intercontinental Hotel in Downtown Boston, also routinely violates its state license and obligations to provide public access. Last year, CLF raised these issues with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) – the agency responsible for enforcing Chapter 91 – which led to an enforcement action against the Intercontinental’s owner. CLF is now asking DEP to take immediate action to hold Battery Wharf Hotel accountable and bring it into compliance with the law.

The fact is, these spaces belong to all of us – the public. Battery Wharf Hotel and other waterfront property owners do not have the right to deprive people of access to which we are legally entitled.

We’re going to keep fighting to stop the People’s Harbor from becoming a private playground for the wealthy. You can help. Download our People’s Guide to Chapter 91. Inside, you’ll learn how to make your voice heard on new proposed developments and how to hold current owners – like the Battery Wharf Hotel – accountable to the law.

To read the letter that CLF sent to DEP outlining the full range of license violations on this site click here (pictures included!). You can also tweet @Battery_Wharf to let them know that restricting public access on Boston’s waterfront won’t fly!

To learn more about CLF’s People’s Harbor campaign and join us in our fight, visit https://www.clf.org/making-an-impact/peoples-harbor/.

 

Focus Areas

People & Communities

Places

Massachusetts

Campaigns

People's Harbor

About the CLF Blog

The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of Conservation Law Foundation, our boards, or our supporters.