Promise of new life for a grand, old harbor

WHEN word came last week that state lawmakers had finally enacted legislation to clean up sewage in Boston Harbor, City Hall heaved a great sigh of relief. Now city officials are breathing easier, knowing not only that the problem of foul and polluted harbor waters will begin to be addressed, but also that their plan to redevelop Boston's waterfront is no longer in jeopardy.

The $1.2 billion development plan, called Harborpark, was thrown into limbo last month when Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Paul Garrity banned any new commercial connections to the decrepit sewer system that serves greater Boston. The judge, who was presiding over a two-year-old lawsuit brought by the city of Quincy to force the state to clean up the harbor, made it clear he was frustrated by months of legislative delay.

''This sends a message out to developers who want to come here that government can't be trusted to deal with the infrastructure,'' Lorraine M. Downey, executive secretary of the Boston Conservation Commission and head of the mayor's Harborpark Advisory Committee, said at the time. ''I can't tell you how far this sewage thing has set us back.''

Although the ban was overturned on appeal, Judge Garrity continued to pressure lawmakers to come to grips with the pollution problem during this legislative session. On Dec. 19 the legislators, after eight months of work, approved a measure to set up and fund a new water and sewer authority. Garrity, apparently satisfied by the action, cancelled hearings on possible court takeover of the sewer division of the Metropolitan District Commission, the agency currently responsible for operating the sewer system.

Now that the harbor cleanup issue is resolved, and investors are reassured that their new office buildings can tie into the sewer system, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) is in a stronger position to make demands on developers who want to build on Boston's waterfront.

When BRA director Stephen Coyle unveiled the 2,100-acre Harborpark plan in October, he made it clear private developers will be required to include public amenities in their waterfront projects. The city simply does not have the money to rebuild rotting piers and pilings, add boardwalks, and build marinas for public use, he said. ''Developers will still make a lot of money. They'll just make a little less of it,'' he said.

Ms. Downey, who is heading a 15-member group that will work with the BRA on Harborpark, explains that this ''public amenities'' requirement is not a pie-in-the-sky policy but in fact has the force of law. Chapter 91 of Massachusetts General Laws, which was amended last year, now specifies that tideland areas be ''used for water-dependent purposes or otherwise serve a proper public purpose.''

So far, Harborpark has elicited enthusiastic responses from investors and developers.

''I don't know anyone (from the development and real estate communities) who has said anything negative about it,'' says Simone Auster, vice-president of community development for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. ''I think developers recognize they've got to give something back to the city. . . . As far as I know, nothing outrageous is being asked of them.'' Edwin Sidman, president of the Beacon Companies, concurs. His company's plan for a hotel-office-condominium project on Rowes and Fosters Wharves is the first to come under the Harborpark guidelines, although it was in the works before Harborpark was conceived.

Although the project's design underwent ''an extraordinary number of changes'' to include more public benefits, Mr. Sidman characterizes the Harborpark plan as ''valid, workable, and exciting.'' He says construction is expected to begin next month.

Noting that two-thirds of the five-acre development site will be available for public use, Downey says: ''I think we're getting good public amenities - a public dingy dock and moorings, a ferry terminal, more dock space for commuter boats than there is now, and a public observation deck.''

Indeed, BRA and administration officials say ''access'' is the catchword for Harborpark - visual access to the harbor, pedestrian access to the water's edge via a seven-mile ''harborwalk,'' access to the land by boat, and, most important , public access to the development process.

In an attempt to safeguard the public's stake in the project, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn has appointed government officials, business representatives, spokesmen for the maritime industries, and citizens from the city's waterfront neighborhoods to the Harborpark Advisory Committee. The committee, which met for the first time last week, is expected to review design standards, provide a forum for public discussion, and help the BRA revise waterfront zoning.

The BRA's Harborpark framework - which encompasses acreage stretching from Chelsea Creek to the Neponset River - portrays a waterfront that:

* Includes offices, hotels, and parking as well as housing (30 percent for low- and moderate-income residents), parks, and public attractions such as a historical ships museum, a winter garden, and a whale pool.

* Preserves all existing water-based commercial activities such as shipping, while allowing for an expansion of water transit from Boston to the airport, the South Shore, the North Shore, and the Harbor Islands.

* Provides more than 6,000 construction jobs and 5,500 permanent jobs by 1989 .

* Generates millions of dollars in property taxes. Currently, one-third of the 2,100 acres within Harborpark boundaries are vacant or abandoned.

BRA spokesman Ralph Memolo says all the pieces are now in place for a comprehensive revitalization of the city's waterfront.

''You have a growing regional economy on the cutting edge of national trends, '' says Mr. Memolo. ''And you have a real estate market that has been very strong (in Boston) over the last decade.

''This kind of opportunity comes along once in a lifetime, and you'd better take advantage of it.''

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