Airport '81: Good old Boston politics vs. developers

When you land from the south on runway 4L-22R at Boston's Logan International Airport -- the nation's fourth busiest overseas gateway -- you skim across the Inner Harbor. Off to starboar, the Atlantic Ocean and Europe. To port, Boston and America. And almost underneath you, just left of the point where the runway climbs out of the sea, is a wind-blasted stretch of weeds dotted with construction trailers and some left-over dumpsters: Bird Island Flats, vacant for seven years and now swamped with controversy.

To some, it is the most mouth-watering piece of seaside real estate in Boston.Offering majestic views of the city, it fairly cries out for hotels, offices, and other people-related projects. To others, it offers the last hope for expansion of the relatively small (2,500 acre) airport. Sitting next to present runways, it is the obvious place for thing-related developments like better cargo-handling facilities, or even a new short take-off and landing (STOL) runway. To still others, it is the logical terminus for a long-cherished third harbor tunnel. Lying about a mile from the expressway downtown, it could become the salvation of hundreds of airport-bound motorists exhausted (in both senses) by chock-a-block traffic in the Summer and Callahan Tunnels.

But most agree on one thing: Like airport expansion plans from Tokyo to London, it is a political football field. Swirling across its 95 acres (created between 1964 and 1974 by dumping $50.7 million worth of fill into the harbor) is a debate which weaves business interests and environmental concerns into a tangled skein of political machination.

Its current tale of intrigue begins in a $125 million development plan for Bird Island Flats proposed by its owner, Massport -- the autonomous port authority that operates Logan out of its own revenues ($100 million in 1980) and reinvests its funds in various port-related developments. The plan centers upon a new 444,000-square-foot cargo handling facility, complete with access aprons and a helipad. On this facility there is general agreement: The increasing airfreight demands for time-sensitive shipments of everything from lobsters to computers makes expansion a priority. Without it, Logan international will be hard pressed to grow beyond its 1980 record, when it logged in as the eighth largest airport in the country in cargo tonnage.

The controversy, instead, hinges on what is known as the "mixed-use" aspect of the plan. For Massport proposes to use 20 acres along the water's edge for:

* A 300-room conference center, designed to handle executives wanting quick-in-and-out access to meetings.

* A 120,000 square-foot office complex, for firms and regulatory agencies now housed at Logan and growing.

* A 500,000 square-foot computer information and marketing center, the first of its kind in the nation, where high- technology firms can meet prospective buyers on the model of such permanent trade facilities as the Los Angeles Design Center or the Chicago Merchandise Mart.

* 1,100 parking spaces for the above facilities.

* A "walk-to-the-sea" -- a slender landscaped pathway to take advantage of the glorious views.

The mixed-use design grew out of several considerations, each equally compelling to Massport executive director David W. Davis. The first is money. The revenue from these facilities would cut the costs of cargo space to the airlines. Sitting on the carpeted floor of his High Street office the other day , a map spread on the coffee table beside him. He explained that unsubsidized costs for cargo space in Boston would be around $1.60 a square foot -- compared with between 45 and 60 cents a square foot in New York and Philadelphia. "This is a very volatile time in the aviation business," he said, stressing the importance of encouraging first-class freight carriers (like Northwest Orient, Flying Tigers, and Federal Air Express) to commit their capital to Boston.

The second reason is community relations. Logan sits cheek by jowl with the Jeffries Point area of East Boston, a working-class neighborhood of 7,000 residents living mostly in three-decker houses that predate Lindbergh. "This place is so noisy that your whole being shakes," said Schoolteacher Mary Ellen Welch over lemonade in her apartment one warm morning recently. As a kingpin of Airport Impact Relief Inc. (AIR), she earlier helped win an injunction (still in effect) over plans to extend two runways and add another. She favors the mixed-use concept because its four- to five- story buildings will provide a noise buffer (which, says Mr. Davis, will cut sound by 70 percent on a bad day) and a visual barrier which will define the edge of the airport.

So far, the plan's supporters include Boston Mayor Kevin H. White (who sees tax dollars from the mixed-use facilities), Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (in whose district East Boston lies), and AIR (whose members think the noise-buffer plan may be the best deal they can strike).

Why, then, is the plan not making its final approach for a smooth landing?

The answer, in four words: good old Boston politics. "Nothing," as one long-time political puts it, "is ever easy in this city." The political jockeying centers upon one man: Gov. Edward J. King. And it stems from one fact: Governor King was the director of Massport for 11 years.

In those years, state Environment Secretary John Bewick (a King appointee) says, "the governor converted a backwoods airport into one of the country's leading facilities" -- and ended up with a better understanding of it than anyone else around. Others say he simply rode the crest of a nationwide surge toward airport modernization. In any case, he left Massport with a lot of land -- and, as the city watched the agency gobble up its real estate, a lot of enemies. He was voted out sortly after Ann M. Hershfang, the first woman to serve on the board, was appointed for a seven-year term by then-gov. Francis W. Sargent in 1974. His firing, says a longtime associate, prompted his decision to run for governor. "He ran on the get-back-at-tehem basis," said this associate, "pure and simple." As governor, after all, he could eventually control the makeup of the board.

That "eventually" has nearly arrived. Mrs. Hershfang's term ended June 30. Governor King now controls three of the seven seats. By next June he will have a majority -- at which time he can wave goodbye to Director Davis. Then, even if he loses his reelection bid for governor (which many think he will), he will remain in control of Massport again, and see it return to the policies he as long expoused.

And what are they? He says he wants the land developed only for airport-related uses -- not, in itself, a bad motive.But East Bostonians, nothing his business-community leanings, accuse him of wanting "wall-to-wall cargo." City- watchers accuse him of wanting to rein in his old foe from Massport days, Mayor Kevin H. White. The governor's own secretary of transportation, James F. Carlin, says simply, "We don't want a situation that would preclude forever a third harbor tunnel." A strip of buildings would do just that. It might also interfere with a new runway -- which is admittedly why community activits support the present Massport plan, and may be, at bottom, why the governor opposes it.

So far, the Massport plan has been approved by everyone except the state -- where Secretary Bewick has twice turned it down. Looking out his office window at logan, he told me that "This strikes me as one of those typical 'good government' projects where you give a little away to everyone and end up with a camel." Officially, however, he reasons that mixed-use development would add to traffic flow -- without noting that such a line of reasoning, carried to its logical extension, could stop all downtown development forever. In place of the buildings, he wants a wall 40 feet high and 1,000 feet long -- which would have the virtue of being removable.

That suggestion meets flak from all quarters. "Nobody really wants to rent a wall," says Massport's Davis, noting it would cost up to $3 million to build. Nor could the city tax it. Even Secretary Carlin, a close friend of John Bewick's, is against it. "We can do better than that," he says, adding, "This is 1981."

But politics is not only the domain of the governor. In the latest maneuvering, Massport has entered into a tricky legal agreement with AIR, binding itself to carry out, letter by letter, everything in its development plan. AIR, which is to get $50,000 a year from Massport to cover the costs of monitoring construction, had threatened to sue unless Massport so agreed. Under the terms of the Chapter 7A Citizens' Right of Action law, the agreement needs a final ruling from Superior Court Judge William G. Young. If he approves it, the document will cast in stone Massport's position and give it the imprimatur of the court. But it would also limit the agency's flexibility -- making negotiations between it and the state, in whcih Secretary Carlin has expressed great interest, much more difficult.

Where does it go from here? Despite a massive amount of money and effort expended on the planning, savvy observers foresee that the proposal will come to nothing. The probable scenario: The state will find a way to bring suit against Massport, the case will be in courts (conveniently) for a year, the Massport board will change, and the issue will die. Bird Island Flats will remain a land of weeds and dumpsters.

Who will win? Not the city, which needs revenue. Not the governor, whose victory will be Pyrrhic, and who will not have stemmed the growing lists of the disenchanted by setting his face against Massport. Not AIR, which may have sold its long-range independence for a short-term goal. And not the residents and businesses of the region, who stand to benefit by a sound and innovative airport development.

Any lessons? Two come to mind.First, every large building project that gets completed deserves our appreciation -- not simply for its planning but for surviving political intrigue. Second, every politician we elect must bring a reservoir of tact and goodwill into office.To lack those things is to invite impasse. In a candid moment, Secretary Bewick put his finger on the very thing that may keep Bird Island Flats empty of all but birds. "I haven't seen any significant willingness to bend," he said, "o n either side."

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