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On The Waterfront: Boston Seaport Development in ViewIGNITION Residential

On The Waterfront: Boston Seaport Development in View

Observations From A Concerned, But Hopeful Citizen

Boston Seaport Development Master PlanAt a symposium at one of the recently constructed waterfront hotels last week, the Mayor of Boston and a number of the city’s most prominent developers presented a vision for the future of the waterfront, laying out the plans for Boston Seaport development.  Dormant for years while the economy floundered, the waterfront is now one of the city’s hotspots for after-hours restaurants and bars.  Soon, according to the City and these same developers, there will be places for people to live, primarily in apartments, so that the idea of a mixed-use, vibrant community will become a reality.

What’s right about all this is that Boston’s waterfront presents a unique opportunity for the city to expand its urban core.  Never a city that had room to spare (after all, the Back Bay and much of the South End was constructed on land reclaimed from an existing marsh), there is now an entirely new frontier to add to Boston’s population and tax base.  There is no set formula for the growth of cities, especially in areas that are revitalized and rejuvenated like the waterfronts of America’s oldest cities.  In Back Bay, the condominium movement of the early 1970s provided a residential base for services that didn’t exist.  In fact, Daisy Buchanan’s and The Half Shell had a captive audience until restauranteurs, bar owners, and retailer turned the entire length of Newbury Street and just about all of Boylston Street into a playground for the waiting market of new homeowners.  The opposite occurred in Baltimore, where the creation of the Inner Harbor development brought restaurants, bars and retailers to an area of the city with hardly any residential base at all.  Within a few years, condominiums sprang up around what was, and still remains, the most successful of the “festival marketplaces.”

Boston’s waterfront appears to be following the Baltimore model and residential developers are hoping that it will prove to match or exceed the latter’s success.  They have reason to be optimistic as the capital markets are lining up to provide funding for more than 700 units of housing.  While almost all of these units will be apartments, not condominiums, there is no reason to think that many will remain apartments once the for-sale market returns.  Hopefully, there will be room for newly constructed condominiums when the time is ripe.

So all is well, no?

Well, maybe and maybe not. One of my concerns is based on the overall feel of the place.  Based on the preliminary development so far, it appears that this part of Boston could start to feel like Houston, where giant buildings stand next to each other, each occupying what feels like a city block.  It may not be bad, but it’s not Boston – at least not the Boston that is famous for being a walking city with a scale and style that is unique to San Francisco and not much else.  Speaking of walking, that mode of transportation and the T may be the only way to get to the new Boston waterfront, as parking is already at a premium and will likely get worse.  Finally, and this will be up to the BRA, the key to this part of Boston becoming a pleasant place to live after the buzz of a few high-profile restaurants wears off, will be the ground plane.  If there isn’t enough life along the sidewalks to make walking in the area interesting in any direction, the Boston waterfront could become separated into residential and entertainment zones, the exact opposite of what makes urban living so desirable to so many people.  After all, that’s the suburban formula, right?

Perhaps I’m expressing concern for no reason.  The new executive director of the BRA, Peter Meade, is as much of a dreamer as he is a political pragmatist and it’s highly unlikely that anything or everything that I’ve said has escaped him.  Further, since the only new buildings are hotels, I may be more concerned about the streetscape than I should be, assuming that the new residential buildings will have retail, and not just lobbies and parking on the ground level.   Finally, the developers who are authoring this first phase of construction are some of Boston’s development icons, from John Drew to Steve and Doug Karp.  The former was an early believer in the potential of the waterfront and the latter gentlemen truly understand what it takes to make an area something more than a place to sleep.

On balance, the new waterfront won’t look like the Boston that we know, but it might be something new and exciting if the right people are guiding and constructing its birth.  So far, this appears to be the case…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on development on the waterfront.  Let us know in the comments below.


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About Merrill Diamond

Merrill H. Diamond is a trained architect and a founding principal of IGNITION Residential, an interdisciplinary multi-family marketing firm. He is also a founding partner of Diamond/Sinacori, a Boston-based real estate development company founded in 1978. Mr. Diamond has been the recipient of numerous local and national awards for both development and marketing. He has served as both a gubernatorial appointee to the Massachusetts Historical Commission and to the Senate Special Commission on Historic Preservation. In addition, Mr. Diamond has been named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Arthur Young / “Venture Magazine;” “Merchant Builder of the Year” by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), and one of “America’s Most Valuable People” by “USA Today".

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