Pleasures of the harbor

Boston built itself up from the ocean, which is coming back. Here’s a scrapbook from poking around the waterfront on foot and kayak.

On fireboats. Like most working watercraft, fireboats generally keep working for decades. The career of New York’s 134-foot Fire Fighter (above left) began in 1939 and lasted 72 years, with starring roles trying to save the doomed ocean liner Normandie in 1942 and damping down World Trade Center wreckage in 2001. Her mission never changed: rush to the fire and shoot a ton of water at it. Actually, in her case, 27 tons a minute from her bow gun (“monitor”) alone. That’s how she cleared a path through a sea of flaming oil to rescue 31 crewman off a burning containership in 1973.

John S. Damrell, named for the fire chief during the great Boston fire of 1872, has been the city’s flagship since 2011. She ties up with a diverse crew of smaller fire rescue craft just south of the Coast Guard base. (Speaking of long working careers, Father Dan, below on the right, is named for Daniel Mahoney, who stepped down as Boston Fire Department chaplain this month after 58 years.)

Boston’s smaller fireboats are fast–but so is the Damrell, which can hit 40 knots on her jet drives. That’s no small design accomplishment since fireboats can weigh about a quarter more than most similar first-responder vessels. One remotely operated monitor on the Damrell‘s roof can shoot a stream of water up to 450 feet and do so without forcing the 70-foot boat into weird gyrations.

Damrell joined Fire Fighter in yesterday’s festive display off Fort Point Channel. 6/7/2022

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Return to Rainsford. Floating in a kayak off its northeastern shore, it’s easy to grasp why Rainsford Island has become a testbed for “nature-based solutions” that guard against storms and sea-level rise. A hefty stone seawall wraps around the shore, but a long stretch of the stones is jumbled down and the cliffs above are dramatically eaten away. Look over to the east and you see why: Rainsford is open to the sea between George’s Island and Hull.

UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab (@SSL_UMB) plans to put in a combination of rocky reef and cobble berm to see if that can slow or stop erosion. As the Lab waits for permission to do so, its researchers are monitoring shores and subtidal areas around Rainsford and (as experimental controls) nearby Gallops, George’s and Peddocks Islands.

Rainsford doesn’t face the same challenges from climate change as, say, East Boston or the Seaport. But anything we can learn about directly facing the advancing seas is all to the good. And Boston’s outer harbor dramatically dampens storm waves before they hit the inner harbor.

Looping around the island yesterday, I saw other signs of Rainsford’s long struggles with erosion, including stone reinforcements along both sides of the high gravel bar that connects the two ends of the island. Half a dozen powerboats had brought folks out for a holiday picnic. Also enjoying the gorgeous day as I paddled home: the coyote I woke napping on a Long Island beach, who watched me without much interest and wandered off. 5/30/22

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Tuning into the Channel. Twenty years ago, most of the Seaport was parking lots. Fort Point Channel was a mostly neglected public waterway with poor water quality and almost no public access or shore activities except around the Children’s Museum.

But urban planner David Spillane and many allies and residents pulled together a vision of the 50-acre “watersheet” as an iconic public place defined by the uses of the water itself, much as one stretch of the Charles River is defined by the Esplanade and Community Boating. (Conceptual map above.) “This could be Boston Common in the water… a place that was funky, attractive to all people, affordable and diverse,” Spillane recalled last week at a Fort Point Working Group listening session.

While that goal remains a vision, we can enjoy some clear victories today, mostly on the east side of the Channel. The Children’s Museum still is a welcoming hub, with its friendly waterfront and kayak dock. Martin’s Park (below) is an extraordinary three-year-old open space.

We small boaters are big fans of the Boston Rowing Center (tucked under the Moakley Bridge next to Martin’s Park) and the Fort Point Pier kayak launch.

And everyone likes the Channel’s signature floating art pieces. Below is Zy Baer’s Polarity, which “represents the intersection of climate change & privilege,” as she explains on Instagram. “With Fort Point & Seaport as the collective wealthiest neighborhood in Boston, as well as one that’s deeply exposed to destructive flooding caused by sea level rise from climate change, I’m depicting a classic Fort Point building as if it had sunk into the sea due to floodwaters.”

Okay, back to the listening session, which provided feedback for Related Beal’s enormous Channelside development. Now underway south of the Summer Street bridge, Channelside will create more than three acres of open space, some of it directly on the water.

Seaport developers like Related Beal have gotten the message about sea-level rise. One key protective element is a berm with an elevation of 21.5 feet that will make a chain with adjoining properties on either side. It also will double as an amphitheater, said Rob Adams of Halvorson Design. Additionally, Channelside sketches feature a specialized launch site designed to handle massive floating art installations like Polarity (and perhaps certain deserving watercraft such as dragon boats).

What else would residents and public groups like to see on the Channel?

1. No surprise, there’s always demand for pleasant and accessible open space for walking, biking, sitting, picnicking and hanging around, with a general lack of parks that are more than narrow strips along the water.

2. Fort Point is an unusually friendly nook for boating in Boston Harbor. “The issues that we face with marine traffic in the harbor are not really a problem,” said Alex DeFronzo of the Piers Park Sailing Center in East Boston. “The weather is a lot calmer inside that basin than it is out in the Inner Harbor and around the islands.” The bridges are too low for sailboats but Fort Point could do fine with everything else that floats from paddleboards and paddleboats to kayaks and canoes to dragon boats and electric launches that zip around with a dozen folks of any age.

3. Easy boating makes the Channel a great location for STEM/STEAM youth marine programs and for public kayaking events like those pioneered by The American City Coalition.

4. Many at the listening session suggested performances on the water: movie nights, concerts, parades and festivals.

5. A fishing pier would be great for the clan of urban fishing fanatics, assuming the water quality is good enough. Save the Harbor/Save the Bay plans to release a baseline study of Channel water this year.

6. If sponsors could be found (where?) the Channel even could morph into a mini-nature preserve with serious vegetation and floating wetlands, as suggested a few years back by the One Waterfront initiative.

7. How about a swimming pool barge, like the Floating Pool Lady in the Bronx? These barges are more practical and prevalent than you might expect. The closest public outdoor swimming sites seem to be the Mirabella Pool in the North End, the Cass Pool in Roxbury and the South Boston beaches. Which are not that close.

No fewer than seven environmental justice communities are within three-quarters of a mile of the Channel, noted Tom Ready of the Fort Point Neighborhood Association.

A block from the South Station T stop and crossed by multiple bus lines, Fort Point will “open up the harbor to entirely new parts of the city because it can be so easily accessed,” DeFronzo said.

Full access for everyone also requires public restrooms, shaded areas, fountains, affordable food and other amenities. Moreover, activities on the water need to be matched by facilities on shore–for instance, “if you’re going swimming or getting wet, you need a place to go inside and warm up or dry off,” said Alice Brown of Boston Harbor Now.

Biggest question, as always, for each Channel vision: Where’s the funding?

p.s. Below, Fort Point past: A tug tied up by the house of the Northern Avenue bridge operator, on one of my first visits. Also a birds-eye view of how railroads built what became the Seaport. when ships still could travel all the way into the now-filled South Bay.

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Dredging our bet. Massport and partners are spending most of a billion dollars to dredge the harbor and prep South Boston’s Conley terminal for the latest-generation Panamax ships. (Unfortunately, Conley lacks any rail lines to carry away containers from these ships.) Occasionally the dredgers working off Castle Island wander into the inner harbor, for maintenance or just to stand by. Left, the clamshell dredge New York. Right, the drillboat Apache, which blows up rocky seafloors. Below, Conley cranes (two of them 205 feet tall!) arrive from China last June. 5/10/22

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Raising Sea Walls. Home of quite a few striking public murals, East Boston gained 19 more in the past two years through the Sea Walls artists for oceans program. All these paintings are on the theme of protecting the ocean against pollution, over-fishing, climate change and other attacks. Matt Pollock of Harbor Arts, who spearheaded the Eastie initiative, led us on a thoughtful tour yesterday.

Given the pandemic, most of the 2020 murals were painted by prominent locally based artists including Silvia López Chavez and Josie Morway. The 2021 round also brought in many other leading artists from around the world. Several more murals will appear this summer.

The biggest cluster of murals livens up playgrounds at the Donald McKay K-8 school. Other paintings appear on private buildings and the fire department headquarters.

It took serious equipment and tricky logistics for artists to complete their paintings within a week. Lauren YS created Plastic Pandora without an outline on a three-story wall of purple. And Beau Stanton somehow produced Precipice, showing McKay the 19th-century clippership builder behind a wave, with spray paint. 4/11//22
Fight the Rise by Josie Morway

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Liberty and King Quest above TobinHow many tugs do you need to take out a giant auto carrier from its berth just north of the Tobin Bridge? King Quest did fine with Liberty on a day with little wind, a rising tide and no traffic in the inner harbor. Below at the Boston Towboat base, Liberty and Justice for all. 4/5/22

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Embedding equity. “Every single person in the city of Boston should see the water as part of their experience as a resident,” declared Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space.

Speaking last evening at a virtual “Revolutionary Harbor: Women of the Waterfront” discussion led by Boston Harbor Now’s Kathy Abbott, White-Hammond said that city government focuses a great deal of attention on the shoreline, particularly in grappling with the storms that are intensifying with climate change.

“But also, how do we make sure that residents can enjoy and fall in love with and interact with the waterfront?” she asked. “Because it’s really a blessing.”

“We are trying to embed equity in everything we do in the way that we make decisions,” White-Hammond emphasized. “And I think as a woman, and particularly as a black woman, I know what it is to be excluded…. There are some experiences I’ve had as a woman, and particularly as a woman in leadership, that I try to bring to thinking about how we engage with community members.”

Truly open spaces. Fully engaging the community is key for equitable access to open space in redesigned parks such Dorchester’s Moakley Park (above), a favorite project. “One of my big goals is to raise the $250 million that we need to make this park work,” she said.

The city also must carefully focus on protecting the housing projects directly behind Moakley. “I spent some time in New Orleans post-Katrina and know what happens when low income folks are not protected from natural disasters,” she said. “In the case of New Orleans, many of those people never made their way back. So we’re really thinking about how we making our decisions about land and land use in ways that prioritize our most vulnerable residents.”

In addition to embattled shorelines, Boston is concentrating on the increasing dangers of heat islands across the city. Some of these are in waterfront neighborhoods such as East Boston and the Seaport where few people have backyards and open space is at a huge premium, White-Hammond pointed out. “If you don’t have a backyard, our parks are your backyard, and we need to make sure that they’re accessible.”

Standing up to climate change. Yes, each report on climate change seems scarier than its predecessors. “When you really follow the science, it can be a bit overwhelming,” White-Hammond acknowledged.

But she takes hope from the next generation of leaders. “Young people rose up, and they challenged their parents, and they talked to their grandparents, and they marched in the street, and they said, We deserve a future,” she said. “If we actually want to be successful on hard, challenging issues, we need young people at the table. We need them to keep us honest, we need them to remind us why we’re doing it, we need them to bring a level of creativity and courage.”

Swimming safely. Boston must recognize “historical racial tensions around how people have experienced the water,” White-Hammond emphasized.

“We’re looking at things like how are we making sure that every child in Boston public schools is able to swim,” she said. “There is a painful legacy of the fact that for many of us who are descendants of slaves, there were rules that you could not teach slaves how to swim… You have many populations of people who may have grown up right around the water but the legacies of racism continue to make them afraid of being there. “

White-Hammond herself is a wildly enthusiastic scuba diver. “I love being under there; it is what I do on vacation,” she said. “I try to be really public about my love of swimming and my love of the water.” She learned to dive in the Caribbean but will make her first dive in Boston Harbor this summer, when the water gets as close as possible to warm. 3/24/22

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Boston rising. Even if the world somehow gets a real handle on greenhouse gas emissions, the sea will rise at least three feet here by 2070. In the Climate Ready Boston program, “we look at all of these flood pathways that enter the city of Boston over the next 50 years, and how do we close them,” said Sanjay Seth, Boston’s climate resilience program manager. “It’s not really a choice for Boston, it’s a must do.”

“We’ve already identified about 70 projects that we need to build at a total cost of around $3 billion or so, to build up some protection, raise the coastal edge and make sure we can keep the water out,” Seth remarked at last week’s virtual forum on rising seas sponsored by the Kennedy Library.

With vast areas of the city built on filled tideland, Boston hasn’t waited for a disaster like Superstorm Sandy to hit. Fully launching Climate Ready Boston in 2016, the city has plowed ahead with thoughtful planning (and serious community-engagement efforts) across its waterfront neighborhoods.

To date, Boston has taken a few small concrete steps like readying a seven-foot-high deployable flood wall to protect the East Boston greenway. The city also has launched mid-scale and surprisingly complex projects like raising and rebuilding the North End’s Langone Park and Puopolo Playground.

Even the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which has an infuriating history of favoring developers over the public interest, is slowly starting to pressure waterfront developers to do the right things.

But major public projects, such as berms or other measures to protect against flood pathways through East Boston’s Border Street or Constitution Beach, await funding.

Although Boston is very good at designing and planning resilience projects, big questions remain about who will pay for these projects, said Courtney Humphries, a journalist and doctoral candidate in environmental sciences at UMass Boston. “Who’s going to be driving the adaptation?” she asked. “Is it going to be privately owned? Is it going to be publicly owned?

Such questions have been particularly tricky in Boston since the 1600s, when the state took the unusual step of encouraging wharf construction by giving landowners ownership of tidelands below their properties, she remarked.

Today, “the strategy that Boston has really taken is to build our way out,” Humphries said. The city’s Imagine Boston 2030 blueprint doesn’t hesitate to promote growth areas located in flood zones. “We are putting more people, more infrastructure in sites of risk, without necessarily knowing how it’s all going to be protected, and how long it’s going to be protected,” she said.

Several years ago MIT’s Alan Berger and colleagues presented a proposal for rezoning for resilience that would give much of the Boston waterfront back to the sea over the years as the waters climb. This strategy never became part of the general resiliency discussion, Humphries remarked.

Seth emphasized that successful adaptation will depend on close collaborations with developers. “Adaptation is one of those things where you take your partners where you can,” he said. “Sometimes you need 50 different parcels to get on the same page when it comes to resilience. And that’s incredibly complicated.”

Increasingly, developers are being pushed into resiliency measures as much by their creditors as by government, since creditors want to be sure they’ll be paid back over 30 years, Seth said.

Another key resiliency issue is the critical need to enhance environmental justice, which is well understood here but barely starting to be addressed in actual projects. With climate change, “we know that populations that are marginalized and oppressed are going to suffer more, because they’re living in the areas that are more flood-prone,” said Paul Kirshen, professor of climate adaptation at UMass Boston.

“Parts of East Boston and Dorchester are classic examples of these environmental justice communities that are right in the present flood pathways, let alone future flood pathways,” Kirshen said. “And these communities have what we call the least adaptive capacity to adapt to the changes. Essentially, the wealthy will to be able to buy their way out of climate change. But lower income groups can’t move. They are locked in.”

A few coastal cities and towns in Virginia and Rhode Island and elsewhere plan an organized migration up from dangerously low-lying neighborhoods to higher ground nearby. This strategy, formerly known as managed retreat and now often dubbed strategic relocation, might prove useful in places like East Boston. “But it’s a tricky question,” Kirshen said. “We all have an attachment to where we live.”

Highly developed neighborhoods probably will be protected rather than relocated “because there’s already been billions poured into these areas, in transit, in education, in infrastructure,” Seth pointed out. “You go tell someone that we’re not going to protect this, and see what they say.” Many low-lying areas need to be protected in any case to maintain transportation systems and other essential infrastructure, he added.

Sea-level rise will force cities to adapt their infrastructures far more quickly than normal, and to keep adapting over the decades. Seth said. Moreover, competition for the necessary federal funds is about to soar. “There are only a few buckets that get you the size of funding that you need for major metropolitan areas,” he said, “and no federal purse that just opens up and buys out everyone’s risk.”

Choosing paths that will keep the most promising options open “is tricky, and it’s going to require a lot of sophisticated planning and thinking, but that’s so much cheaper than spending billions and billions of dollars on unnecessary adaptation,” Kirshen declared. Adaptive management also requires setting signposts–for instance, when will the MBTA need to switch from Blue Line tunnels under the harbor to a Blue Ferry Line?

“We want to remain nimble, so we adjust as we go along, because there’s just an incredible amount of uncertainty,” Kirshen emphasized. “Not only is the climate changing, but also our society’s changing. The way we work, the way we live, our values are changing.” 3/15/22

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Down the ways in Weymouth. Exactly 400 years ago, Weymouth Fore River was home for the first European settlement on Boston harbor, a notable disaster. In the 20th century, the Fore River Shipyard built hundreds of warships and many other vessels (some famous, including the Thomas W. Lawson, the largest schooner ever built and another disaster). The USS Salem, a heavy cruiser launched in 1947 that never fired her guns in anger, now ties up at the shipyard site as the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum. 3/11/20

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Shamrock Splashing. Save the Harbor/Save the Bay raises money for its beach programs through an annual Shamrock Splash. This year’s plunge was held on East Boston’s Constitution Beach, with Logan Airport as a backdrop. The day was warm and windy with a sprinkling of rain, the seawater was 40 degrees, about 150 people charged in, the good cheer was contagious and I got close enough to be splashed. 3/7/22

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PP3 high tide
PP3 low tide

Down to the sea in steps. The latest design for Piers Park 3, the first Boston park to fully embrace the waterfront as more than scenic backdrop, was unveiled yesterday by One Waterfront. With salt marsh and tidal pool in a resilient coastal landscape, PP3 “will be just teeming with life,” said landscape architect Chris Donohue of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Opening in spring 2025, PP3 will make up the final, “immersive” component of an East Boston magnet park almost triple the size of downtown’s Christopher Columbus Park. 2/17/22

PP3 design update watery edge

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DBC projection 3

Bright lights, Bay City. You can see the proposed Dorchester Bay City/2 Morrissey project, which aims to build triple the square footage of the Empire State Building, as development done right for once in Boston. The developers are bringing a genuine focus on inclusion for jobs, more affordable housing than the city requires, fence-free access to public open space, climate resilience for the neighborhood, and extensive community engagement that has produced significant improvements in the master plan.

Or you can see Dorchester Bay City as many residents do: way too big (with high rises of up to 25 stories), a bastion for the rich built on a spectacular chunk of public waterfront land, crammed with far too much commercial space in an area with a severe lack of affordable housing, and car-centric in a neighborhood often choked with traffic. Another Seaport, in short.

The project’s 36 acres include a surprisingly small sliver of shoreline; its occupants will view the bay across the Harborwalk and other Department of Conservation & Recreation land (seen last week below).

Only a fifth of one percent of the built space will be assigned to civic and community use. There is no magnet attraction; @FortPointer proposes a cultural center as a signature gathering place for public events.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency will close the public comment period on February 25th, having held five Zoom meetings since December 10 when the 1,681-page second-round project plan was released.* BPDA and development agent Accordia Partners are listening carefully but making no concrete new commitments. Many residents support Dorchester Bay City. Others complain that this enormous project will do very little to address the desperate local need for housing and that its timeline for approval is insultingly short. 2/8/22

* Comment period has been extended to March 25th.

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Salted. The first time I saw the two mountain ranges of road salt, on the Mystic River west of the car port and on Chelsea Creek just east of the McArdle drawbridge, I assumed they were built up in summer and drawn down in winter. Well, not exactly: The salt mountains are also steadily resupplied in winter. Here are three bulk carriers that tied up on Chelsea Creek in the past month with Chilean salt. 1/25/22

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Floating Point Lady

Floating Pool Ladies. Each summer an outdoor swimming pool opens in the South Bronx–actually off the South Bronx, in the East River. The Floating Pool Lady, a converted barge, lets thousands of people swim and enjoy themselves for free during the season.

This wonderful public facility is the brainchild of the remarkable Ann Buttenwieser, who describes her decades-long effort in The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront.

Public floating swimming pools are not a new concept, with many built in the 1800s in New York, Boston, New Orleans and other cities. Unlike the Floating Pool Lady, these pools were open to saltwater and many were funded to improve sanitation rather than offer recreation. As water pollution built up and waterfront access grew scarce, the pools disappeared.

Buttenwieser’s book describes her saga modestly but frankly and in detail. (There’s a good quick summary in this 2014 profile.) Philanthropic funding was tough but she kickstarted it with a donation of almost $2 million from a friend’s estate. Converting a barge into a beautiful recreational facility was tricky but not rocket science. The big barrier was regulatory science; she titles one chapter “The Orwellian Bureaucracy”. The toughest opponent proved to be New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Back in 2017, floating swimming pools alongside an urban beach were part of a Boston Harbor Now proposal to enhance the Charlestown Navy Yard. Could those pools work in Charlestown or elsewhere in Boston Harbor?

There might be plenty of demand. Charlestown’s Clougherty Pool is at the other end of the neighborhood. The Mirabella Pool is right on the North End waterfront, East Boston has Constitution Beach and South Boston has three miles of beaches, but as best as I can tell that’s about it for public outdoor swimming in the city.

On a wild guess, Floating Pool Ladies might cost a bit under $10 million today and they would be considerably more expensive to operate than alternatives onshore. If those exist. I have no idea on how high floating pools might rank among community priorities. But can a city provide too many public outdoor swimming pools?

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NYC plan1

How pocket parks can open up the shore. Waterfront walks like Boston Harborwalk and the Manhattan Shoreline Greenway give fabulous views of the sea. Some big waterfront parks like East Boston’s upcoming Piers Park 3 and Manhattan’s Hudson River Pier 26 offer opportunities for closer engagement, like walking down to the water or going kayaking. New York makes a particular effort to deliver these connections in pocket waterfront parks, as shown in the city’s latest comprehensive waterfront plan.

One example is Hunts Point Riverside Park. “This former illegal dumping ground at Hunts Point situated at a predominantly industrial waterfront along the Bronx River, has been transformed into a waterfront oasis, featuring a fishing pier, a kayak and canoe launch and a spray park for children.”

Another is Randall’s Island Living Shoreline, “which features terraces and tide pools that create new ecological habitats and encourage biodiversity. Markers at different shoreline elevations allow the public to observe the effects of changing tides and rising sea levels.”

“Because healthy waters make it safer for people to get onto the water, the City has also expanded infrastructure that supports recreational water access, such as floating docks, get-downs, boat ramps and boat tie-ups,” says the plan. “This infrastructure, along with an increase in the number of boating clubs and youth-focused paddling initiatives, has made it easier and safer for New Yorkers to launch watercraft into NYC’s rivers and bays today than at any other point in the last century.”

For evidence, check out the “blue network” of the NYC Water Trail:

In a few locations, “boathouses serve as important hubs for boat storage, education and guided instruction that anchor community access to the waterfront. New boathouses planned at Sherman Creek in Manhattan and Bay Breeze Park in Queens demonstrate how the City can partner with local boating and paddling advocacy groups to construct new multipurpose boathouses on revitalized waterfront parkland.”

Okay, the Big Apple has major resources that Boston lacks, including 160 miles of city-owned shoreline and (sometimes) better access to serious funding. Getting into or onto salt water also might be a bit easier for anyone in New York than in Boston since the range of tide is much lower–about half the range at the tip of Manhattan as in Boston inner harbor.

But in the future, our wonderful little parks like East Boston’s Condor Street Urban Wild and Chelsea’s PORT Park could be designed with an eye on tidal go-downs and boat launches.

Perhaps we can even get a few boathouses, maybe starting with the boat ramp at Little Mystic Channel that I use. As in New York, these could be community centers hosting group gatherings and other amenities like the restrooms that are so hard to find along the shore. Boathouses could store and safeguard not only cartop boats but open water rowboats or daysailers or dragon boats like those that live on a float in Little Mystic Channel.

This kind of community resource would be nothing new on the Boston waterfront. For instance, a boathouse was one of many amenities at Wood Island, the remarkable East Boston park opened in 1898 and illegally bulldozed by Massport in 1969.

Wood Island Park preliminary plan