June 22, 2022

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They’ve sparred over Chiofaro’s tower. To fight climate change, they’re joining forces.

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Photo by W. Marc Bernsau

As neighborly relations go, the downtown Boston waterfront is not exactly Mister Rogers’ puppet kingdom. The years-long battle over developer Don Chiofaro’s unbuilt 600-foot tower is testament to that. 

But those property owners face a common threat because of climate change: rising sea levels in Boston Harbor. A go-it-alone approach won’t work. Boston Harbor Towers, for instance, plans to waterproof its buildings next summer, according to Norman Meisner, a chair on the towers' board of trustees, but its residents know that may only go so far when the neighborhood next floods.

“We came to the realization that if a major flooding event occurs, great, our buildings will not suffer — but we will be trapped in those buildings,” he said.

To that end, leaders from The Chiofaro Co., New England Aquarium, the Harbor Towers and other properties have come together in recent months through a neighborhood group, the Wharf District Council, to draw up potential solutions for protecting the coastline stretching from Christopher Columbus Park to Congress Street. The goal is to form a connected barrier to keep out the water, which a city report found could rise by as much as three feet in Boston by 2070.

“It’s going to affect all of us,” said Chiofaro Co. Vice President Don Chiofaro Jr., whose company owns the parking garage now at the site where it wants to build its office tower. “We all have to get on the same page to take steps to not just protect the waterfront, but everything to the west of that.”

High stakes, rising seas

One strategy could be to raise the Harborwalk. The Wharf District Council secured $250,000 in state funding to hire the engineering firm Arup to lay out the possibilities. It is working on a master plan around how to tackle the problem. A task force of council members, led by Boston architect Marc Margulies, is seeking to raise $100,000 more from property owners for the effort.

The funding so far is just the start of what will likely be a years-long initiative. The stakes are high: A bad flood could cause potentially billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage in the neighborhood, including inland streets.

“If we let the water go past buildings and into the city, the O’Neill Tunnel’s going to be an aquarium, and the entire Financial District is going to be underwater,” Meisner said.

The flooding caused by a Nor’easter in 2018 looms large in the memories of those on the waterfront. The flooding inundated the Harbor Towers’ basement, forced the MBTA to close the Blue Line Aquarium station, and cut off public access to the New England Aquarium. The nonprofit “lost a great deal of money as a result,” said Rick Musiol, vice president of external relations at the aquarium, which is a council member.

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March 2018 Nor'easter

Part of the reason the council is taking action now is that property owners do not want to wait for the city to conduct similar planning on its own. (Officials from City Hall and the Boston Planning and Development Agency have taken part in the council’s discussions.) By quickly getting a plan in place, they hope to give themselves as many funding options as possible to make that plan a reality, including American Rescue Plan Act funding for which officials are looking for shovel-ready projects. Any solutions will likely involve a combination of private and public financing, according to members.

“You can’t just wait for the government to do everything,” Margulies said. “People who own waterfront property have both a need and an obligation to address this.” 

Eastie's example

A seawall need not mar the landscape, he said, pointing to the Clippership Wharf luxury housing complex in East Boston.

“If you look at what’s happened in East Boston, what you have is a raised harborwalk that has riprap on the water side and is nicely landscaped and sloped down on the land side,” he said. “You don’t even know it’s a wall.”

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Margulies cited the climate mitigation measures at Clippership Wharf as one example of how rising seas can be kept in check.

Arup is expected to produce the master plan by late 2022 or early 2023, according to Margulies. By then, property owners should have a clear idea of where the high water line should be on their land, which materials will work best to keep the water in check, and the costs of the changes, he said. In the meantime, Arup’s consultants continue to gather data and meet with waterfront property owners.

While the initiative moves forward, more public disputes may surface about the best use of Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage site, including when it comes to climate resiliency. There’s also likely to be back-and-forth when the Wu administration revisits the city's municipal harbor plan for downtown.

Still, members of the task force say they are committed to working together on the master plan.

“Resiliency only works when it’s done together, with one another,” Musiol said.