Municipal Harbor Plan approval enables two landmark waterfront developments, ensures long-term climate change resiliency

By Matthew M. Robare

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) has approved a new Municipal Harbor Plan (MHP) to establish guidelines for new development along the Downtown Boston waterfront. With the approval of the MHP, two proposed landmark waterfront mixed-use projects at the Hook Wharf and Harbor Garage sites can now be developed. Both of these projects will individually undergo Article 80 large project review and will require design approval before construction.

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The Hook Wharf and Harbor Garage sites

At Hook Wharf, the site of the James Hook Lobster Company restaurant at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Seaport Boulevard, the Hook family, which owns the wharf and the eponymous seafood restaurant, will build a 22-story building designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects. The Hook Wharf building will feature a new ground-floor seafood restaurant with residences on upper floors. Per the MHP, the James Hook building is allowed up to 305 feet in height (285 feet to the highest occupied floor), 275,000 gross square feet of total floor area and 70 percent lot coverage. The MHP guidelines will require the Hook family to contribute $1.5 million towards the construction of a new continuous Harborwalk connection linking Hook Wharf to the other side of the Moakley Bridge.

A preliminary rendering of the Hook Wharf building

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A preliminary massing diagram of the Hook Wharf building

At the site of the Harbor Garage, an existing 70-foot high parking structure, an iconic tower will be developed by owner Don Chiofaro. The MHP allows the Harbor Garage tower up to 585 feet in height to the highest occupied floor; the tower may in no case exceed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limit of 600 feet high. The tower may contain up to 900,000 gross square feet of total floor area and may cover up to 50 percent of the project site.

The MHP guidelines will require Chiofaro to contribute $5 million in funds towards the neighboring New England Aquarium’s vision for a proposed “Blueway” waterfront greenway, and $5 million towards converting the Chart House parking lot on Long Wharf to public open space. The tower must avoid casting net new shadow on Long Wharf seaward of the existing Marriott hotel.

A rendering of an earlier Harbor Garage development proposal

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A preliminary massing diagram of what the Harbor Garage development could look like

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Proposed Blueway

The 42-acre waterfront area covered by the MHP, namely the area between Atlantic Avenue and the Inner Harbor stretching from Hook Wharf to Long Wharf, consists of 22 acres of filled and flowed tidelands in addition to sections of Boston Harbor. Therefore, existing planning regulations regarding height, floor area ratio (FAR), open space requirements, massing and other dimensional factors as dictated by the State of Massachusetts’ waterways protection law, Chapter 91, apply.

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A map of the MHP district

Chapter 91 preserves public access to waterfronts and mitigates the environmental impact of new development. Additional Chapter 91 legislation enacted by the State of Massachusetts in 1990 also sets a height limit of 55 feet for new buildings over water or within 100 feet of the high-water mark. Most buildings on the Downtown Boston waterfront were built prior to the legislation; exemptions have been made for some more recent developments, for instance on Fan Pier in the Seaport District and on Lovejoy Wharf in Bulfinch Triangle. If a proposed project complies with the MHP, as with the Hook Wharf and Harbor Garage developments, then Chapter 91 height restrictions can be waived.

The approved MHP also establishes climate change resiliency as a key component for general waterfront planning. The MHP has set new height allowances for improvements to existing buildings in anticipation of climate change, namely elevating mechanical systems to avoid flooding. Per the MHP, such buildings may add up to two new floors not exceeding 30 feet of new height and including mechanical systems.

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Height restrictions for additions to existing buildings

The MHP establishes six overall goals for new development:

  1. Create a mixed-use, active neighborhood;

  2. Provide public access to Boston Harbor, the Boston Harbor Islands and water transportation;

  3. Improve wayfinding and open-space connections along the Waterfront;

  4. Enhance and create open space resources, as well as improve public realm;

  5. Ensure climate resilience; and

  6. Implement the existing Greenway District guidelines:

    1. Create and enhance access to the waterfront and South Boston;

    2. Reinforce open space;

    3. Ensure the Harborwalk is fully accessible; and

    4. Diversify abutting uses

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