CommonWealth Nonprofit Journal of Politics, Ideas, and Civil Life
Neglect should not be used to
privatize a public asset
A CITY MUST always protect its public assets. For Boston, these assets are largely embodied in our harbor and its waterfront. Foremost among our waterfront assets are the Harbor Walk and its potential focal point at the head of Boston Harbor in the Charlestown Navy Yard— the iconic Pier 5.
The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) is considering privatization of the last remaining Boston public pier that connects to the very shore where John Winthrop landed in 1630, where Paul Revere rowed to warn colonialists that the “the British were coming,” where women and men built and repaired ships in World War II. The BPDA is considering removing this irreplaceable location, which spearheads an historic battlefield district that extends off the tip of Pier 5 from the public realm forever. The result would be expansion of residential occupancy into what is a severe flood zone and in tidelands intended to be protected by state law.
Boston and the surrounding communities must both secure public access to, and make sustainable, its waterfront. The existing BPDA budget planning for the city is a piecemeal approach of passing the buck to developers to deal with neglected infrastructure, resulting in the privatizing of much of our public waterfront. This must end.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s courageous call to withdraw and rework the municipal harbor plan for downtown, and Michelle Wu’s accurate critique of the BPDA, are steps in the right direction. But major revisions to Boston’s planning process are essential. Boston needs a professional planning and urban design entity that is independent from the BPDA’s dependency on zoning giveaways to developers (such as increasing height zoning on the waterfront for new development).
The Boston Planning and Development Agency is a conflict of interest emblazoned in its very name. In this era of climate change, our urban planning must be comprehensive across all neighborhoods. Neglected and inappropriately managed infrastructure that can be cherry picked by developers for the low hanging fruit, while the rest decays, should not be our legacy.
Pier 5 Association, Inc., is seeking to preserve and enhance the authentic waterfront along the Charlestown Navy Yard shoreline as a public asset. Our blog includes extensive comments on the unique geography, ecology, and history of this location that connects the pre-colonial and colonial period to the subsequent industrialization of New England and the maritime and economic history with its successes and missteps across the centuries to the present time.
At present, the Charlestown neighborhood is one of the densest in the city with little expansive open park space. The neighborhood is surrounded by water on three sides, it has a population of 20,000 in only one square mile, and boasts over 500,000 visitors to its historic waterfront every year. The largest housing project in New England is being tripled in size a short distance from this Pier 5 location, which could offer the big sky open space so necessary for public health and welfare of a community.
To this end, the Pier 5 Association has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures in English, Spanish, and Chinese in support of our position (see www.change.org/bostonpier ) and witnessed a ground swell of local support at multiple well-attended events organized to advance this goal.
In 2021, with tidal action increasing with climate change, we see subsidence of adjacent filled uplands along the waterfront and sea water infiltration of utility corridors causing “sinkholes.” There are clearly important unresolved issues in Charlestown and around the waterfront. Pressure to further build on the existing waterfront is a formula for future trouble. We have seen expansive waterfront construction in recent years. It is now time to secure waterfront residual open space as public assets and protect them for the enjoyment and education of our entire community.
The Boston Harbor belongs to the people. The significance of our history and the living lessons in climate, tidal action, and sustainable ecology are on display in our waterfront. It is also our duty to remember the legacy of all who worked in the cause of freedom at this location.
The reality that our waterfront infrastructure has been neglected for 50 years should not be an excuse to privatize a public asset. While the US Navy and the National Park Service have diligently addressed matters within the historic park, the city of Boston has not kept pace with the transfer obligations, challenges, and opportunities emerging in this adjacent area.
A carbon friendly and sustainable solution for Pier 5 would preserve the extant steel and concrete structure through selective reinforcement and bracing from below to permit lighter duty use as open space, waterfront marine ecology, naval and cultural history exhibits, and demonstrations and water access for the public. The economic and cultural benefits would easily outweigh the cost. Engineering assessments should be a first step.
As a world class city, Boston must demonstrate global goals for sustainable development. Boston needs to take true leadership on issues that matter most to our children and future generations. We have an opportunity to complete the public mission of the US Navy’s 1979 transfer of the Navy Yard and use of Pier 5 as a venue to demonstrate our awareness of climate change and social justice. Let’s develop economic models of prosperous sustainability while providing for the needs of our least privileged as well.
Pier 5 is the premier waterfront public asset on the Boston Harbor. It is in a location that benefits our city, enhances the Charlestown neighborhood, and captures tourist dollars from around the world. Here we can showcase our maritime and historical heritage against the background of unrivaled views and vistas of Boston Harbor, the Mystic and Charles Rivers, Bunker/Breeds Hill, and the expanse of the Boston skyline. Here is a special place where we can educate and inspire people today and for generations to come. Join us to create an important landmark, a cultural landscape park, at Pier 5, the head of Boston Harbor.
Christopher Nicodemus is a research physician with a focus on experimental therapeutic immunology and a principal at AIT Strategies. Diane Valle is an entrepreneur and community activist, the president of Marathon Daffodils commemorating Boston Strong, and the chair of Greenway Gardens at the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Gerald Angoff is a physician who currently volunteers providing healthcare to remote and underprivileged populations. Sherrie Cutler is an architect and urban designer, and president of ECODESIGN, Inc. She is the author of several books including Recycling Cities for People: The Urban Process.