CommonWealth Magazine

Port of Boston needs (regulatory) attention

Line between port and non-port activities shouldn’t be so rigid

 TOM SKINNER Feb 23, 2019

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KUDOS TO BOSTON Harbor Now’s Jill Valdes Horwood and James Aloisi from TransitMatters for highlighting the need to rethink industrial ports like Boston (“Boston’s Port Needs Attention”). While their insights and observations were spot-on, they left me wanting to read more and get into the seaweed on how to implement their vision. Here’s one possible approach.

Boston Harbor’s Designated Port Areas (DPAs) have worked well with some high-intensity industrial use areas, such as shipping terminals for containers, energy, salt, and auto imports. These areas, and adjacent areas that could be utilized for similar operations, should continue to be protected under state regulations. However, other DPAs are characterized by vacant land, deteriorated piers, and structurally deficient bulkheads that are underutilized and require too much investment to attract maritime industrial uses without additional investment from private-sector development or public-sector partners.

In addition, the DPA/non-DPA regulatory dichotomy has restricted the way we think about our marine economy and our waterfront, where an activity is either maritime industrial or it’s not, and never the twain shall meet. The DPA regulatory system fails to encourage what could be a significant component of the harbor’s contemporary maritime economy: waterfront development where maritime industrial uses and non-water dependent uses – think condos and restaurants – can coexist and even thrive.

Let’s take a step back to see how we might position our harbor to better protect traditional industrial port activities, revitalize port infrastructure, and respond to emerging port uses and users. First, regulations protecting high-intensity DPA properties should be strengthened, to ensure that these types of maritime industrial users have sufficient waterfront access, land-side access, and an absence of conflicting uses to operate, expand, and prosper. To differentiate this first type of DPA activity, let’s call these areas Industrial Port Facilities.

For other DPAs that may not require the large land areas that once characterized most port activities, current regulations allow some flexibility for mixed, compatible uses, focused on upper floors. These DPAs should have the flexibility to reflect maritime industries’ contemporary building needs on the ground level while capturing valuation from upper floor tenants whose rents can be reinvested in port infrastructure. The city of Boston’s master plan update for the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in South Boston provides a good example of this type of approach. We can refer to these second areas as Marine Economic Zones.

Let’s get back to the condos and restaurants next to those maritime industrial uses mentioned earlier. Many emerging marine technologies do not require significant land areas and do not cause neighborhood disruptions. We need a new type of regulatory classification to expand Boston Harbor’s capacity for low-intensity, low-impact maritime industrial uses that will accommodate this type of cutting-edge industry. These working waterfronts constitute a proposed third category and require new regulatory incentives for developers to incorporate them into residential and commercial projects.

Through an expanded comprehensive planning assessment of the type that Horwood and Aloisi envision, we can identify potential working waterfronts areas. The regulatory framework for a working waterfront program would protect the bulkhead and some or all of the pier for low-intensity water-dependent industrial uses as part of residential or commercial developments.

Boston Harbor Now’s recently released Planning A 21st Century Harbor provides innovative examples and suggestions that dovetail with the working waterfront concept. Marine vocational school piers, testing docks for marine robotics collaboratives, waterborne delivery landings (for “delivery trucks that float”), and the more traditional commuter ferry dock are all examples of low-intensity marine industrial uses that would complement waterfront commercial or residential development. Working waterfronts can also serve as public harbor walks, with common sense limits to accommodate these maritime uses.

Horwood and Aloisi are again on target when they tell us to change where the city meets the port. When maritime industrial uses required large areas of backlands, generated noise 24/7, and created pollution, it made sense to provide a regulatory wall for the DPAs. For working waterfronts in particular, we should be proactive and not let complacency determine where port activities stop and the rest of the city begins. Seeing a group of students testing a prototype autonomous underwater vehicle or a delivery of fresh fish from boat to restaurant kitchen would certainly add to the diversity of activity along the waterfront, blur the line between city and port, and make full use of Boston Harbor’s potential.

Meet the Author

Tom Skinner

Durand & Anastas Environmental Strategies

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To position Boston Harbor on the cusp of this new frontier will require a multi-tiered approach that promotes a broad spectrum of maritime industrial uses. We still need to protect trucking routes, rail lines, and shipping channels for traditional port activities. But, increasingly, access to Logan Airport, a highly skilled workforce, and academic capital are equally important to our port. That sounds a lot like what many 21st century Boston businesses need to succeed, so maybe the city and the port have more in common than we thought.

Tom Skinner is a partner at Durand & Anastas Environmental Strategies Inc. and a former director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. He currently consults for municipalities, developers, and water-dependent industrial users in the Boston Harbor area.

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