Hugely ambitious, breathing new life into the Seafront area of Boston has taken vision and perseverance for what must be one of the largest ongoing city redevelopment projects in the north eastern part of the USA, taking place through good and bad economic periods.
Formerly a bustling shipping and warehouse area, the Seafront area declined after the Second World War into a derelict wasteland of car parks and abandoned warehouses. Slowly, it is being redeveloped into a thriving new city district supported by huge investments which have been made by the city in transport infrastructure.
The former mayor Tom Menino made development of the Seaport a priority and supported the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the Institute of Contemporary Arts being located there as catalysts for its renewal. Optimistically, he sought to develop the area as the “Innovation District” to rival Cambridge across the River Charles, an objective which has not yet been been achieved. Early projects also included the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, completed fifteen years ago at a cost of $170 million.
The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center designed by Rafael Viñoly, opened in 2004 to provide Boston with a size of conference facility that it did not have previously, supported by a high-quality data network and new hotels such the Seaport Boston Hotel and the Westin Boston Waterfront. It is the largest exhibition center in the Northeast of the United States with some 516,000 square feet (about 4.8 hectares) of exhibition space. Having achieved this, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority launched in 2009 the “Top 5 Campaign”, aiming to make Boston one of the top five cities in North America for major conventions.
The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) relocated into its new building on the waterfront in 2006. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it was one of the firm’s first buildings in the United States and the first new art museum to be built in Boston in over a century. “We feel that being on the waterfront, we’re on the edge of Boston looking out,” said Paul Bessire, the museum’s deputy director for external relations. “Not just toward the harbor, but out toward the future.”
The design was controversial. Described as representing dock gantry cranes, it sought to celebrate the harbour, ahead of other developments which have still to happen. Its entrance on the land side is however austere and uninviting.
Such is the scale of the challenge of this area, that these achievements appeared for many years as isolated projects in a sea of car parking and empty sites – future development opportunities which, as the economy picks up, are now being realised. The Fallon Company, for example, bought the 21-acre Fan Pier waterfront site ten years ago and is now building a mixed-use development of offices, hotel, marina, retail space and residential apartments around a new park. High quality restaurants such as Mortons Steakhouse and quality retailers see the opportunities and are moving into the area. Vertex Pharmaceuticals is establishing its global headquarters in the new twin 18-story towers. Is the “Innovation District,” starting to become a reality as the area becomes home to office towers, residential buildings, and “innovation labs”?
While most of the old harbour buildings have been demolished, a little of the area’s heritage continues with new uses. Across from the ICA is the World Trade Center, originally constructed in 1909 as the Commonwealth Pier and then the largest pier building in the world, able to accommodate the largest vessels that entered the port of Boston. It became obsolete in the 1980;s and was transformed into the World Trade Center in 1986.
Public art is beginning to make an appearance one of the most notable sculptures being the Parisans by Andrzej Pitynski, on loan to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Nearby, an enormous steel “Sea Serpent” by artist Wendy Ross rises up at the lower steps of the Seaport World Trade Center entrance.
There is a long way to go yet, such is the scale of the redevelopment. Many sites still are empty and while the City of Boston has a masterplan for the area, it is difficult to see this on the ground so far. Most worrying of all, the new developments appear to be in danger of isolating the early achievements such as the ICA on the waterfront. The city has celebrated its waterfront water with new developments not far away at the Childrens Museum – hopefully it will do so here, or a unique opportunity will have been lost.