Why city dwelling fisherman come daily to this location on foot and bicycle carrying buckets and rods to fish the waters near the pier. It has teaming with marine life for many years now? Pier 5 steel piles themselves form a unique and dense human constructed intertidal zone reef structure that is nourishing marine life throughout the harbor.
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 650x125 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.
Storm tides have breached the top of drydock 2 at its western end by First Ave and the Constitution Gate House
both in 2018 and 2019
The granite and steel seawall between Pier 5 and the Flagship Wharf surrounded by remaining 19th century land fill
In my last installment of this blog, I discussed the unusual steel & concrete construction of pier 5. This pier’s support is dense with closely placed steel piles. I speculated on the intertidal zone reef which has formed through it over its 80 year existence and which sustains an increasingly healthy aquatic environment as I have continued to regularly observe it over the past 30 of those years. This week I turn my attention to the shoreline from which the pier extends. As residents and visitors to the harbor walk are well aware, the buttressed shoreline has had issues in recent years. Sink holes at the traffic circle at the base of pier 4 near the pumphouse Building 123 have undergone extensive restoration work this past fall and a section of the harbor walk on pier 4 adjacent to the ferry docks required a structural rebuild that is just now being completed in time for Spring. 2021. Ground settlement has occurred periodically and is currently present along the harbor walk by pier 5 as well as in the lawn waterside of Shipway Place between piers 7 and pier 8.
The Admiral’s House in the Navy Yard uphill from the USS Constitution is surrounded by 19th Century Hardwoods and rests on the lower slopes of Breeds Hill which is home also to The Bunker Hill monument. It lies well above the high tide lines. The dry docks 1 &2 and the shoreline extending to Pier 8 under the harbor walk are all filled tidal wetlands dating back to the 19th century. Much of the working Naval Yard was constructed on this fill. The elevation of the filled tidal wetland varies, but for the most part is above the maximal flood tides experienced over 50-year periods. In January 2019 a severe Nor’easter moving by slowly just offshore at a period of astronomical high tides. This brought sea water over the lip of Dry Dock 2 at its base end near First Avenue and flooded that lowest segment of that flat appearing street. The sea also rose just above pier 8 at 13thStreet and the harbor walk in front of Shipways Place. It did not however, reach the surface levels of piers 4,5, or 6, Eighth Street or the harbor walk adjacent to pier 5.
The shoreline itself which runs under the harbor walk is constructed of carefully placed granite slabs dating back to the 19thcentury. In some sections steel plates have been added to or replaced the granite. Drydocks 1 &2 are of also 19th century granite construction excavated below the low tide line so that ships with drafts greater than Boston’s 10 foot tidal range can be floated in at very high tide. A dry dock of course is pumped dry and must have its upper edge above the maximal flood tide when it is in service with a dismantled ship in the dock undergoing repair. Otherwise the dry dock would flood the work site. Under the streets of the Navy yard, there is a network of tunnels and storm drains. Tide water can enter some of these so that a rising tide may emerge from a storm drain before it breaches from the shore edge. I am unaware of a tide ever breaching the drydock 2 when it was in service, but that would have happened in January 2019 as the accompanying photo demonstrates.
Flagship Wharf was constructed in 1987 as a renovation of the large Federal Building 197 that had served as the administrative headquarters of the Navy yard. Part of the reconstruction included the excavation of a multilevel below ground parking garage that extends 5 floors down to below the level of the harbor floor. Water depth at Pier 5 is about 45 feet at mean high tide. The garage is constructed with a slurry wall set back from the granite and steel seawall and surrounded by remaining 19th century land fill. The footprint of the slurry wall extends outside the base of the shoreside of the building for its entire width. Juxtaposed to this slurry wall, pier 5 represents a massive steel “reef structure” that buttresses the land fill and seawall adjacent to Flagship wharf. When the pier was constructed, closely placed steel piles were driven into the seabed and then coated in concrete where they have rested now for 80 years.
Strong southerly winds blow the several mile length of the inner harbor on hot summer days when afternoon south westerlies pick up and are even stronger when fronts approach or when low pressure passes to the west of Boston. Under these conditions large waves can rapidly pick up and directly impact the northern prominence at pier 5. This is the most exposed shore on the north side of the harbor. The force of these waves is broken by the dense piles which reduces the erosive force of the waves on the granite seawall shoreside. However, the seawater does flow through the granite sections and slowly with the motion of the waves, the outgoing tides extracts fill from the space behind the granite. This continuous harbor action results in the ground settlement and sink holes previously noted that recur on an ongoing basis along the section of the Navy Yard.
The environmental consequence of removing the legacy pier 5 is significant. In the previous installment, I discussed the aquatic habitat that the pier has created. Perhaps even more important to area residents is the pier’s role in buffering the action of the sea. If tides like that of January 2019 and even higher recur frequently as is expected, it will become necessary to further elevate the height of land along the Navy yard waterfront. Demolition of the pier, as is the current mandate of the BPDA RFP, will remove this buffer and replace it either with a floating dock or a reconstructed pier that will not have the density of steel serving as both marine habitat and tidal buffer. The consequences to both the integrity of the harbor walk and the parking garage below Flagship and the aquatic biosphere may be substantial and harmful.
As I concluded also last week, funds for preservation of the pier and reef and its structural reinforcement to allow for light service duty as an educational and living outdoor natural exhibit as part of a coastal resiliency demonstration should be secured and the pier preserved as a great community asset. The assertion that under all circumstances the pier must be demolished and removed with no alternative must be questioned and the rationale closely scrutinized. There may be satisfactory alternatives worthy of implementing.
Certainly, Imagine Boston 2030as an updated city masterplan has revised the visions originally articulated in earlier municipal harbor plans and its guidance is now consistent with chapter 91 concepts regarding the tidal water sheet. I would argue the vison of Imagine Boston 2030 should drive the future of this unique and special community place, not the plan cited by the BPDA that dates back to 1978.
Applying letter of the law compliance achieved by the weaseling through inconsistent regulatory language to implement plans that are inconsistent with the community will and the best interest of the people of Boston, should not be taken countenanced. Let us imagine creative solutions for the revitalization of pier 5 and celebrate its value as an aquatic sanctuary, shoreline buffer, and educational resource on a beautiful and dynamic activated waterfront.
Chris Nicodemus, 4 March 2020
· Flood zones in the Navy Yard
· The Sea wall at pier 5 (credit N Sneh)
Writing on behalf of pier 5.org, I have used the iconic pier 5 location at the confluence of the Charles and Mystic Rivers to reflect on our nation’s history, the flourishing aquatic life, the role of the pier in our national defense and also consider comparative approaches to restoration of this structure that might reasonable for consideration. This is a public asset, and it provides the view corridor that makes the Harbor Walk along the center of the Navy Yard unique for its expansive views and “big sky”. As a public asset and also an important historical site that is visibly neglected, how can this small piece of overwater space be best serve the needs of our city, our urban population, and our visitors while enhancing access to the water for all. This small parcel has the potential to be an economic engine, an environmental cornerstone, an educational demonstration project and a destination all at the same time. The opportunity is now.
One feature of the location that is rarely appreciated by casual observers is the current that flows beneath the pier and aggressively scours the Boston harbor twice daily. It is useful to reflect on the Boston Harbor in its original configuration in early colonial times to better appreciate the currents significance. The daily ocean tide on the north side of Cape Cod and extending northward through the Gulf of Maine to the western side of Novia Scotia at the Bay of Fundy is much larger than the ocean tides farther south. The tidal range in the Bay of Fundy is a full 40 feet and at Boston it is approximately 10 feet. By comparison tides south of Cape Cod are less than 3 feet. The geography of the continental shelf and shoreline is responsibility for the magnitude of this range.
Boston Harbor is scattered with bedrock “islands” such as Bunker, Breeds and Beacon Hill! In colonial time there was an immense tidal wetland surrounding these heights of land. Offshore, the harbor Islands are an extension of this geography and include a mixed collection of bedrock outcroppings and glacial deposits that form the islands and shoals of the outer harbor Islands. The Boston inner harbor is formed by confluence of a series of estuaries including the Fort Point channel, the Charles and Mystic Rivers and Chelsea Creek. The tidal wetlands with marshes, mud flats, and open water stretched west toward Watertown and Winchester and these estuaries absorbed large quantities of tidal flow with each ocean cycle. The outward flow from the estuaries converged at the inner harbor and scoured a natural channel in the sediment that allowed the inner harbor of Boston to serve as the biggest and best protected deep water harbor for merchant shipping in early America.
The harbor’s location just west of the Gulf Stream but well east of harbors farther south made it an ideal stopping point for vessels involved in the early triangular trading loops between Europe & North Africa, the Caribbean, and the American Colonies. Sailing from Europe to the New World is best accomplished following the North East trade winds off the coast of Africa, running westward to the West Indies, then following the South West breezes and currents up the east coast of North America, and finally the North west westerlies and currents across the North Atlantic back to the UK and European ports. One can argue that the social and political evolution of western societies and how renaissance Europe transformed into the modern world is a by-product of this geography. That is to say, the economic opportunity, its wonders and its cruelty alike, were a product of this geography, the wind, the current and the climate. The molasses disaster in the north end, the ice warehouses at Tudor wharf, and the canal network to the Mills of interior New England all are a products of this natural geography.
Ship building into the 19thCentury occurred not on industrial piers but on the banks of estuaries, and the size of the ship constructed in any location was limited by the height of the of the tide. If one could not float ones constructed hull out into navigable water at high tide, ones newly constructed ship would never launch. Thus estuaries of eastern New England with large tides were favored locations for early pre-industrial ship construction. The Navy Yard in Charlestown was an ideal location for the construction of the largest ships in our founding Navy with a pool of talented labor and access to navigable water immediately at hand.
In the late 19thcentury, flood control was introduced to both the Mystic and Charles Rivers and extensive tidal lands were filled for residential and industrial uses. To this day the outgoing tides from the Charles and the Mystic River are dampened by the dams and locks on both rivers at the corners of Charlestown. The sluices in the dams gate the inward and outward movement of water and both Charles River and Mystic River basins retain water at low tide but prevent flooding at high tide. Water levels of both rivers are maintained a few feet below mean high tide level in the ocean. If the sluices are fully opened the currents of either river can increase rushing by in both ebb or flood directions.
The construction of pier 5 as a densely packed collection of steel piles extends 650 feet outward from the southernmost extent of land in Charlestown. For currents moving along the shore must pass through this steel grid which dampens the current near the shore and deflects the strongest currents to mid channel where the tankers and freighters that serve the industrial waterfronts in Chelsea Creek and the lower Mystic River pass by regularly. No other piers on the Charlestown shorefront share this feature.
An open question for those who favor the complete demolition and removal of pier 5 is the effect the removal of the “steel grid buffer” might have on the shoreline currents that already move rapidly to the left or the right depending on the tide as one looks out towards the harbor. Will these currents increase and produce a hazard to navigation for the small boats that are harbored in the marinas along this shore? Would this effect ability navigate under sail into the dock at Courageous Sailing Center? Would this effect the sailing experience the center provides free to all children of the city of Boston? The Courageous sits immediately adjacent to pier 5 on its western side. I am quite sure no one can answer that question with full authority but having navigated these waters for more than 30 years in all conditions, it would truly be unfortunate if the answer is a resounding yes. The currents are tricky enough already and depending on the sluice flows and tidal depth, they can vary substantially from expectation.
Pier 5 deserves recognition and restoration. Perhaps partial demolition will be necessary because of the mass of the slab concrete, but the barrier steel reef below should be preserved and before the pier is transferred to any one developer’s expedient solutions, the subject of possible impacts requires diligent scrutiny. As an iconic part of the city’s historic infrastructure, a public solution that serves the city and its residents may be available in the post covid recovery programs. Let us not lose the public option though hasty decision making. But let us not stand by either. The community risks losing the opportunity to seek the substantial funds that will be required to restore this pier to a better future in honor of its historic past and memory of all who worked here.