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Boston Seaport District – Risks & Rewards

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About this column:  Boston resident John A. Keith is a residential real estate broker and owner of John A Keith Real Estate, based in the South End.

Opinion: Hope for the Seaport District

Boston’s Seaport District, the subject of scorn for many years, is on the cusp of greatness. But serious risks remain.

I come to praise the Seaport District, not to bury it.

Boston Innovation District - Seaport District Boston MA

Boston Innovation District - Seaport District Boston MA

I’ve complained non-stop about this neighborhood for going on 15 years. I’ve seen proposals come and go, along with constant name changes. (In just the past 20 years, it’s been known as the South Boston Waterfront, Seaport District, and, now, Innovation District.) For longer than I’ve been alive, it seems, there’s been talk of the area’s “potential” with little to nothing to show for the effort.

No longer.

Having decided to check out this weekend’sExtreme Sailing Series™ being held in the Boston Harbor, my nieces and I ventured down to the Seaport District. A great and eager crowd had assembled. Afterward, we walked over to Liberty Wharf to enjoy some dinner at Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill. Then, we walked back through the District and on to the South End. It was a fantastic day.

I realize now I’ve been overly skeptical about the Seaport District and plans to turn it into Boston’s next great neighborhood. So, I’m reconsidering whether my complaints are valid. These include:

They never build anything

Millions of square feet of office, commercial, and residential space covering more than 100 acres of land were planned for the Seaport District but haven’t been built. The names of these projects are still fresh in my mind: Waterside Place, Seaport Square, Pier 4.

You can forgive developers from pulling back on plans to build during the recession. And, perhaps we’re lucky they did – Boston doesn’t have any half-built office towers and few empty condo buildings, unlike other cities.

But, let’s be realistic. These projects were proposed before the economy soured; nothing was stopping them from starting them then. Even now, after modifying their plans, these developers haven’t committed to start dates. Until they do, criticism is legitimate.

When they do build something, there’s a price tag involved

I don’t think I’ve ever been against any project proposed for Boston. The times I’ve had reservations, my opposition has been to city and state tax credits.

Back in 2001, in order to win residents’ approval of plans for the Seaport, Mayor Menino made a “political agreement” with then-City Councilor Jimmy Kelly to give the South Boston neighborhood up to $65 million in city linkage funds, according to the Boston Phoenix. Fortunately, this never came to pass. Meanwhile, the Marine Park has received over $55 million in public funds during the past 40 years.

More recently, the city of Boston gave public subsidies for JP Morgan Chase & Vertex Pharmaceuticals, both located in the Seaport District. In Vertex’s case, the Boston City Councilapproved the Mayor’s request for a $12-million property tax abatement. The total amount of Fan Pier tax credits is much more, an estimated $72 million (and this after only three of its nine buildings are completed – how much more will it cost us?).

Now the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority wants a $2 billion expansion for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, one that may require a $1.5 billion public subsidy.

In a city as strong as Boston, with balanced city and state budgets, growing population, stable real estate market, educated workforce, and declining unemployment, why would we need to write checks in order to persuade companies to move here and developers to build here? Truth is, we don’t have to. Our elected officials should stop giving away tax credits.

There’s no public transportation

Let’s not lie about it: there’s really no public transportation access to the Seaport District. The city can point to two gleaming Silver Line bus stops, but no one’s going to rely on them when going out to eat or if they live out there. They’re located far from where most people are going, and few know about them while fewer still are interested in taking them.

So, instead, people drive in, and it’s convenient – two bridges into the District, plus you have the Ted Williams Tunnel right under you.

There needs to be a subway line directly from downtown Boston to the Seaport, or, my preference, a street-level trolley. (I’ll settle for a monorail.)

There’s no grand plan for the neighborhood

One thing that’s stayed constant during the past 15 years is the city’s leadership under Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Often imagining new schemes for the Seaport District, many of his proposals remain nothing more than architects’ sketches. (Remember his plans for a Boston Heliport and to moveBoston City Hall?) Lack of focus is the neighborhood’s number one problem.

Recently, a Greater Boston segment on the new Liberty Wharf project included an interview with a business owner who said the Seaport’s success hinged on building “a place to visit, not to live.”

Not what I wanted to hear, nor do I think it’s what the Mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority are hoping for. But, who’s to blame for the confusion? The city has championed the neighborhood as ripe for residential, commercial and industrial uses at different (and sometimes the same) times. What’s it gonna be?

In order for the Seaport District succeed, each of the four issues above needs to be resolved. I’m optimistic they will be.

At least today, I am.

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