Christopher Nicodemus, Charlestown, MA In the last installment of this blog, I reviewed a range of possible public solutions for the Charlestown Navy Yard Pier 5. In the interval our mayoral candidates have held an open forum on their visions for the City of Boston and its waterfront in the face of escalating climate change. …


Christopher Nicodemus, Charlestown, MA

In the last installment of this blog, I reviewed a range of possible public solutions for the Charlestown Navy Yard Pier 5. In the interval our mayoral candidates have held an open forum on their visions for the City of Boston and its waterfront in the face of escalating climate change. The consensus clearly takes the threat of climate change to our shoreline city very seriously and is highly supportive of a creative public solutions in the City’s response. Accessibility of the general population to the waterfront and attention to social justice that includes providing amenities to our disadvantaged community members were popularly articulated on the May 24 zoom conference amongst the candidates. Concerningly however, there was no specific reference to the Charlestown waterfront in the actual discussion. Often forgotten is the proximity of Pier 5 to the largest public housing project in New England. Also unappreciated is that that many members of that community regularly fish the waters adjacent to this pier, although the pier itself has been closed to all access in recent years.

The adjacent Pier 4 is a public amenity, the home of Courageous Sailing Center. This community sailing center provides free sailing lessons to any child living in Boston and is a world-renowned organization. The current proposals for privatization of pier 5 immediately to the east of Courageous will produce both wind shadows and encroach on the available water sheet as proposed to the BPDA in the current RFP round. These impacts will reduce room to maneuver for the engineless boats being used to teach sailing to our city’s children. All submitted plans threaten viability of the Pier 4 location for this important public asset. 

In parallel to writing a description of alternative public solutions in the previous installment of this series, I reached out to various folks and from Morli Wilson, Pier 5 Association happily received an illustration that is telegraphic and worthy of sharing not because this is in anyway a formal landscape architectural proposal but rather because it interprets some concepts that have been previously suggested but poorly understood. Ms. Wilson illustrates how one might repurpose aspects of the current pier and outlines a concept that is intriguing.

The concept is superimposed on the 650×125 footprint of the current pier 5 and opens additional space on the water sheet while creating a model of an actual estuarian shoreline otherwise impossible in a deep seaport hardened shore setting and incorporating an approach to waterfront access and activation as well as provocative educational features.

Since the pier was lengthened to its current length only after World War II, Morli suggested that shortening the solid pier and substituting a floating breakwater and floating docks to form a kayak lagoon would be an appropriate modification for the end of the pier. This space that could also be visited by small boats and even some medium sized schooners. With Pier 4, Dry Dock 2, Pier 3 and berthing facilities in the active navy yard near the USS Constitution, the potential for Charlestown to once again be a center of activity for visiting tall ships and appropriate for an early home of the US Navy.

Two illustrations, a bird’s eye view of the concept describes solution of potential Iconic status that is within reach if we gather the will. The two central features of this first received vision is Glass Pyramidal structure positioned on the pier 4 edge of the pier and supported by restored piles under that section of the current pier. This structure would serve as a natural “reverse aquarium” with a base level about 3 feet below mean low water and glass views out in all directions. On the landward side of the viewing area the existing piles of pier 5 will be repurposed to support an artificial seabed elevated to create a surface permanently submerged to a depth of 3 feet below mean low water. This raised seabed,  perhaps 50 feet wide, extends back 200 feet toward shore. 

This natural aquarium would observe the open water under the Courageous boat traffic on the pier 4 side of the structure with the boats floating below eye level at low tide but 7 feet above at high tide. To the South East harborside, a short section of pier 5 will stand with piles only but deck removed to open an intertidal pile reef, while to the north east under the pier the steel piles would form a darker reef fully submerged only at high tide.. Experiential learning modules in the space would teach to the many aspects of the living demonstrations being encountered by visitors. The eel grass seabed would slope up to merge with a short intertidal marsh segment and then an appropriately planted natural shoreline barrier to illustrate what the estuarian shoreline of the original Charles and Mystic River junction would have been. A small marine ecology center would be positioned near the base of the pier, however, to avoid disturbance to the view corridors from the shoreside harbor walk the design and placement of such a feature would require careful consideration. Perhaps such a feature could be part of a refurbished pump house building by Dry Dock 2 or in another nearby shoreline location. 

At the harbor end of the pier, the last section of the pier would be removed and replaced by a floating breakwater and floating docks to create a Kayak lagoon and promote water accessibility. This public dock could provide and could house the ecology center. Remaining space on the repurposed and restored pier would provide contemplative areas as well as a small plaza for possible public gatherings and approximately and eight mile of additional harbor walk. Features dedicated to Navy Yard History, renewable energy, and urban outdoor active lifestyles can all be envisioned. A competition of demonstration scale tidal, solar and wind generation should power the pier and power climate control in the enclosed spaces. A diurnal tidal range recorder with records of tidal height by season and year logged and displayed. The aquatic and bird life visible in the surrounding of the pier both on and below the surface will be a great attraction. This location is frequented by seabirds, occasional seals, a variety of jelly fish, and a wide range of fish. Although turbidity varies based on the river water mixing with the ocean water, the water in Boston Harbor is often surprisingly clear and aquatic life in the vicinity of the viewing walls should be readily observed. 

The side view perspective may make the possibilities more apparent to the reader and follows below. Models for active water sheet access by all and the necessary training to make this possible, safe, and enjoyable by all should be expanded here. 

This is vision 1.1. Let this serve as an inspiration for all to try to improve on this vison. The possibilities are endless and models to preserve & restore not merely demolish and replace are fundamental values that our society needs to embrace if we are to prosper into the future world to the benefit of all. Engineers and Architects have yet to initiate any formal work on this neglected two-acre parcel sitting at the very head of Boston Harbor where the waters of the Charles and Mystic River join, Pier 5 Association welcomes more contributions of designs ideas from readers of this blog and other friends of the harbor. Interesting ideas that would importantly teach to the importance of the sea and to its dynamic nature should all be considered, and a final solution worthy of our world class small city selected by our political leaders as a priority in these changing times. We trust the city leaders will recognize this opportunity and make it happen.