What began as a group of concerned citizens concerned about the public process address the fate of pier 5 has turned into the establishment of a new organization focused on neglected pieces of the Boston waterfront, especially here in Charlestown. The P5A is now a 501C3 organization focused on bringing together the broader community to address neglected pieces of our waterfront and assure that these valuable but extensive community assets remain in the public domain
What began as a group of concerned citizens concerned about the public process address the fate of pier 5 has turned into the establishment of a new organization focused on neglected pieces of the Boston waterfront, especially here in Charlestown. The P5A is now a 501C3 organization focused on bringing together the broader community to address neglected pieces of our waterfront and assure that these valuable but extensive community assets remain in the public domain though public private partnership and responsible planning.
The city needs to secure and make sustainable its waterfront…the piecemeal approach of passing the buck to developers to take on the responsibility may work in the short haul. However, neglected and inappropriately managed infrastructure that can be cherry picked by developers for the low hanging fruit while the rest of the waterfront decays, should not be our legacy.
Recently a neighbor, Gerry Angoff, directed me to an interesting public document, “Boundary Enlargement Report, Charlestown Navy Yard: Boston National Historic Park”, December 1978 published by the National Park Service (NPS-MA-799990-B1) . It is of great interest to the larger subject of the transfer of the Naval Shipyard from the federal government to the city in the 1970’s and the genuine struggle various officials faced in finding how best to contend with the challenge. At the time the Navy Yard was emerging from its status as an abandoned industrial wasteland. The “gift to the city” was a penalty to the State for its progressive leaning population and unwillingness to vote for Richard Nixon in 1972. The simplest solution circa 1973 might have been to raze the entire location and rebuild to developers whims, however the historical significance of the location to our nation’s history was well understood.
The area of the National Historic Park had been reserved in 1978 to house the USS Constitution as an important element of the Boston National Historic Park. Plans for the further redevelopment of the remaining yard by the City and the Boston Redevelopment Authority originated in 1975 were already undergoing revision. The Boundary Enlargement report it is written from the perspective of “cultural history”. The document is an earnest effort by the cultural historians of the National Park Service to assess the significance of the historical assets not already contained within the boundary reserved from transfer to the city and to contemplate possible expansions of the boundary footprint. The document contemplated alternative expansions of the historic park footprint of varying scope and served as the basis for the decision in 1980 not to formally expand the boundary but rather to recognize 4 locations in the navy yard of highest cultural and architectural significance specifically the Ropewalk, the Tar House and Chain Forge and Round House as non-contiguous historical sites. The document gives insight into the public plans as officially understood in 1978, and provides an inventory of additional important locations within the Navy Yard that were considered for federally designated preservation. Most of these historical features were not included in the modest 1980 change, but now almost 45 years later their significance not only remains but becomes increasingly threatened by climate change and continuing waterfront development.
Cultural and Landscape historians have struggled with defining the optimal fate of the Navy Yard. In the Boundary Report it is acknowledged that the Navy Yard was not a pretty place. This reflects the evolution beyond the iconic 19th century works of design architects Joseph Billings who preferred brick and Alexander Parris who preferred granite. Their historic structures incorporated inspired architectural detail and subsequently housed many important historic working navy yard activities and innovations. In contrast 20th century structures were built more expediently necessitated by the urgencies of the two world wars. Tree canopies were lost, open areas occupied in a much more piecemeal fashion, and expedience and hasty construction were the era’s hallmarks.
In 1978 the tension between preservation and change is palpable in the Boundary Report. Interestingly the envisioned 18-acre park proposed by the BRA in 1975 that would have encompassed Dry Dock 2 to Pier 5 had been reduced to a 6-acre park. Building 197 constructed in 1940 had been designated by then for residential conversion and not destruction. The Boundary report cannot anticipate the further evolution of planning that occurred in the 1980’s but it does describe the importance of Dry Dock 2 and importantly consequences of the Navy’s decision to decision to remove the Dry Dock 2 Caisson in 1976 and transfer it to Portsmouth. The report details that leaving Dry Dock 2 open to tidal wash is inconsistent with its late 19thcentury engineering. Such granite walled dry docks were expected to be empty most of the time. The report notes that the granite would be vulnerable to erosion of backfill as fines elute into the harbor with each tide. It is stated in this 1978 report, that ultimately the structure and adjoining utility corridors will become unstable (Boundary report page 45).
Now in 2021, with tidal action increasing with climate related changes in the tides that prescient observation has come to roost. Subsidence of adjacent filled upland adjacent to Dry Dock 2 is indeed occurring, and sea water infiltration of the First avenue utility corridor is a real issue. To date, the granite appears stable. The BPDA has recently put out an RFP for engineering studies across the pier 3 to pier 5 shoreline including Dry Dock 2 and the base of Pier 5
Pier 5 represents a contiguous extension of the waterfront emanating from Pier 3 at the edge of the designated National Historic Park Boundary. While the Navy and the National Park Service have diligently addressed matters in the historic park, the city of Boston has not kept pace with the challenges emerging in this adjacent area.
This land represents infrastructure that is tied to the integrity of water transportation in our community and is also of profound national historic significance. Tidal flow within Dry Dock 2 is a wonderful public feature, however reinforcement of the granite structure and management of water intrusion into the adjacent filled upland is essential. Pier 5 is an important historical artifact of World War II that has similarly been neglected.
Pier 5 is the focus of the Pier 5 Associations effort to preserve public open space for the benefit of the whole community. This includes attending to the preservation and sustainability and stewardship of adjacent real estate and the integrity of the entire harbor front. Dry Dock 2 and Pier 5 as public asset’s should be recognized for their historical pedigree and cherished as educational, recreational, and waterfront activating assets for the residents of Charlestown who are already packed into one of the densest neighborhoods in the city. In a time of focus on sustainable coastlines, federal funds and a public and community-based solution to help manage these important assets should be a priority. We look to our civic leaders to secure this solution for our community, the city, and our visitors.
Photographs from Pier 3 in the remnants of tropical storm Fred. (C Nicodemus)
1. A view across the granite walls of Dry Dock 2 and across piers 4 and 5 to East Boston
2. A view South West over the Cassin Young to the North End of Boston.
The Pier 5 Association (www.pier5.org) and sister organization Restore Pier 5 (restorepier5.org) had a highly successful public meeting on overlooking Pier 5 Wednesday evening June 16.
The balloons on 30 foot tethers were strung on the BPDA fence to illustrate the height of any proposed 2 story building and its impact on the Harbor Walk and accessibility to Pier 5, if any construction along the Harbor Walk at the base of Pier 5 is allowed to proceed. A lone balloon was placed 100 feet from the end of the pier on a 65 foot tether to illustrate the height impact if a 60 foot building is constructed the length of Pier 5.
On that perfect weather evening, the winds at the end of the pier still kept that lone pressed low much of the time. More than 150 people were in attendance and not surprisingly the sentiment of the majority of attendees supported that Pier 5 as a remarkable, unique public asset should remain a public amenity and be preserved for all the people of Boston and for our visitors, a destination protecting the breathtaking City and Harbor view corridor along the Harbor Walk that makes this location so rejuvenating for all who pass.
In the last installment of this blog, Artists Vision1.1 illustrated a fanciful vision for Pier 5 that is feasible from both a financial and structural reality as part of an infrastructure restoration when there is a common will. That solution creating a maritime historical park included included selective opening of Pier 5 surface to reveal the marine environment below.
These strategically located openings will provide additional light to the steel reef formed by the piles, a demonstration estuarine environment to foster aquatic vitality, and public access to the water. The design vision also featured a unique subsurface marine viewing structure, a reverse aquarium where the wildlife and marine life of the harbor would have a face- to- face opportunity for visiting humans to observe from inside the submerged intertidal glass structures. This iconic attraction would provide educational experience on such diverse topics as marine ecology, estuarine shorelines, aquatic habitat, tidal fluctuation as well as marine construction.
With surface area displays and art, Pier 5 can also further showcase the historical development of Pier 5, the Navy Yard including the use of Pier 5 and the historic engineering and construction completed during and after WWII when the Navy Yard was in the forefront of the United States World War II defense of freedom. Importantly, this Charlestown Waterfront Park will remain public open space with gardens educational and interactive activities and view corridors that neighborhood residents, city residents, and Navy Yard visitors alike will all be welcome to visit, partake and enjoy. Creating open space for contemplation, small demonstration models for renewable energy, as well as alternative approaches to coastal resilience are all part of the vision 1.1 package.
A solitary voice was heard at the event expressing the belief the pier 5 is a great location for subsidized housing and that as part of social justice such a future residential vision would be a preferred path forward. Such opinion ignores the reality that overwater residential construction is expensive, impractical, inaccessible, exposed and harsh especially along the New England coast. In an era of climate change such use is discouraged as a planning standard. The space is public space and should be available to all, not a few.
In an era of climate change, placing human life at such risk of tidal surge, weather in a time of rising sea levels is intensified at the end of the pier. Unfortunately, ‘affordable housing’ is an illusion. Between the cost of construction overwater, maintenance of overwater structures, flood probabilities including the high cost of flood insurance (which will be required by any mortgage holder), the prospect of using this location for residential space ill advised.
Construction on Pier 5 would permanently alter the character of the Harbor Walk at the Head of Boston Harbor and eliminate the Big Sky impression which allows visitors to appreciate Boston Harbor and Boston’s Skyline that characterizes the sweep vision from Pier 3 to Pier 7. Residential construction ignores the physical reality that the exposure to winds and from all directions at the pier’s end are far greater than on the adjacent protected shore and that access to the pier is limited and restricted and would place future residents in harm’s way in moments of emergency (fire and natural disaster) which are occurring with increasing frequency. Sea level rise and more extreme and damaging weather are anticipated by environmentalist, government agencies, and urban planners worldwide. Boston Harbor is vulnerable.
Accompanying the argument in favor of residential construction is the belief that the current Charlestown Navy Yard is a privileged location with multiple parks and another Park surely is not needed. That opinion ignores the reality of both the Navy Yard and the Charlestown Neighborhood and furthers the misinformation being disseminated about our community.
The Pier 5 Association has carefully summarized statistics for Charlestown in the context of the greater Boston.
Charlestown is the oldest settled land in the Boston area and has the highest population density among neighborhoods in the City of Boston. Yet Charlestown has the least amount of open space, with 3.09 acres per 1000 residents compared with 7.59 acres for the city as a whole. We have two affordable housing buildings in the Navy Yard (Bricklayers and Anchorage) and rank third in terms of the amount of affordable housing units across the city.
Residents of Charlestown have been cut off both physically and socioeconomically from the Navy Yard. The heavily trafficked Tobin Bridge overpass and route 1 bisects the Navy Yard from the rest of the neighborhood, literally and physically walling off the neighborhood from direct access to the Navy Yard. On the other side of the street (from the overpass) the original granite boundary wall built to protect the Navy Yard from Foreign enemies projects a further unwelcoming aura. And while the Navy Yard is home to several waterfront condominium buildings, the largest public housing development in New England is just 2 blocks away on the other side of the overpass.
Charlestown is well below the city standard for available open space with its dense residential neighborhoods and has already more affordable and low income housing than all but 2 neighborhoods city wide. Charlestown is one square mile, with industrial, government, commercial, educational, religious parcels consuming approximately two thirds of the town, which reduces the residential buildable space. Charlestown is a very dense neighborhood. Many additional units of affordable and low income housing are slated for construction over the next several years only two to three blocks form Pier 5 at the largest affordable housing complex in New England at the Bunker Hill Housing Development. When accessible open space is removed from the use of the entire community, it reduces the quality of life for all residents especially those who need access to green space and the harbor the most.
We have a unique opportunity to provide for the quality of life for our community, by making Pier 5 a resource for all. This unique opportunity to make a public park on Pier 5 allows us to recognize its history, our heritage as Bostonians, the marine significance of this merger of the Charles and Mystic River estuaries where they join to create the Boston Inner Harbor. Pier 5 is the Head of Historic Boston Harbor, directly across from the Old North Church and adjacent to Paul Revere’s famous route to Lexington and Concord and down the hill from the historic Bunker Hill monument on Breed’s Hill. No other location in the entire United States shares this rich history and ecological significance.
Access to the Harbor Walk should be improved and made more welcoming for residents of Charlestown and our visitors. The original vision for Pier 5 when the Navy Yard transition to preserve Pier 5 for recreational use and its unique City skyline view with corridors of view and park. The original BRA planning document produced in 1975 describes a waterfront park to balance the density of the Charlestown.
The envisioned waterfront Park was not constructed to that vision and building 197 was expanded for residential and commercial use. The BRA/BPDA is subsidized by all such development in the Navy Yard, and thus has an economic incentive to develop all available public space and to avoid bearing responsibility of land to which it holds title. Pier 5 was separated from the waterfront park parcel and as a free-standing parcel became an economic albatross for development in isolation. Fifty years have passed and for fifty years Pier 5 has been neglected.
This is neglected federal infrastructure and infrastructure dollars should be earmarked on behalf of the community, the city, and our visitors to restore this space as an open accessibility community asset available to all. There is a unique window of opportunity to accomplish that, and that moment is now.
What do we all want for pier 5?
Almost 2000 signatures so far support our vision of a maritime historic park. Why is this such a difficult concept to understand? Sign the Petition at change.org/BostonPier and let your voice and support be known. Email us at Pier5.org or RestorePier5.org.
Together we can do this
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.