Rising seas and raising questions in booming Boston district
By PHILIP MARCELO
Jun. 06, 2018
BOSTON (AP) — In this old city's booming Seaport District, General Electric is building its new world headquarters, Amazon is bringing in thousands of new workers, and Reebok's red delta symbol sits atop the new office it opened last year. Three tech companies are testing self-driving cars and restaurants and apartments have gone up virtually overnight.
But after bad flooding this past winter, some wonder whether it was a bright idea to invest so much in a man-made peninsula that sits barely above sea level.
"That was the first winter where we really saw waves splashing onto the boardwalk and water in the streets," said Greg Hoffmeister, who watched the brief deluge from the third-floor Seaport office of his real estate firm. "You start to think: Is that what we're in for, as sea levels rise?"
As they gear up to host the International Mayors Climate Summit on Thursday, municipal officials insist they're making the proper preparations in a city that was less than 500 acres (202 hectares) when the Puritans settled it in 1630 but now includes more than 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of man-made landfill — one-sixth of its entire area.
"We know the water is going to be coming in through South Boston, pretty much from every direction, by 2070," said Richard McGuinness, a city planning deputy, referring to the neighborhood that includes the Seaport.
A 2016 city report projected Boston could see 8 inches (20 centimeters) of sea level rise by 2030, with the Seaport District the most vulnerable area. By 2070, seas could rise 36 inches (91 centimeters) higher than in 2000 levels, affecting some 90,000 residents and 12,000 buildings and potentially causing economic losses of more than $14 billion, the report said.
While some new Seaport developers are building with climate change in mind, many office towers and high-rise condos erected earlier simply didn't — even after 2012's Superstorm Sandy slammed New York and showed what a bad storm could do on the East Coast. And environmental activists and some researchers complain the city isn't moving quickly or aggressively enough to change development patterns.
Boston officials say they're looking at ways to revise the city's zoning code, moving ahead on relatively inexpensive neighborhood-wide improvements, and assessing the need for the kinds of massive public works projects that European cities built long ago — such as a barrier across Boston Harbor that could cost $12 billion and take 30 years to build.
The Boston Planning and Development Agency also revamped in October the "climate-ready checklist" developers have been required to submit since 2007 detailing strategies they're incorporating into their designs to mitigate climate change impacts.
But the requirement is still "largely procedural" since the city doesn't require developers to follow through, complained Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group.
Boston officials counter that any design changes still need city approval and note that many newer Seaport developers are already preparing for the worst.
General Electric, which moved its corporate offices from Connecticut to temporary digs in Boston's Seaport in 2016, says the first floor of the new global headquarters it's building will be elevated nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters), or enough to protect it from the higher sea levels projected by 2070. Electrical systems are also being placed on the second floor, and emergency generators will be on the roof of the 12-story building.
The developers of Seaport Square, a 20-block complex of apartments, office buildings, and stores where Amazon has recently committed to leasing space for 2,000 workers, says its buildings stayed dry this winter, thanks to similar design features.
"We believe in science," said Yanni Tsipis, a senior vice president at WS Development. "We go into development in the Seaport with eyes wide open."
But environmental activists warn much of the district, transformed from a wasteland of surface parking lots, rotting piers and abandoned rail yards into an economic engine and one of the city's most expensive neighborhoods in a matter of years, simply isn't prepared for the long haul.
Among the most vulnerable properties are historic buildings that are extremely costly and sometimes impractical to retrofit, like some of the old brick factories and warehouses near where GE is building, city officials acknowledge.
Protecting those important structures, as well as roads and other infrastructure, will take broader measures, some of which are already underway, McGuinness said.
A federal report released Wednesday found that nationally, high-tide flooding is happening at twice the rate it was just 30 years ago and warned flooding records will continue to be shattered for decades.
In East Boston, home to Logan International Airport, the city is investing in a 7-foot (2-meter), temporary floodwall while in Charlestown, the neighborhood where the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought, parts of flood-prone Main Street are being raised by 2 feet (0.6 meters). For the Seaport, improvements include tide-control gates and other storm water drainage fixes.
Resident Deb Friedman wondered whether such steps would be enough. This winter, sea water poured into her luxury building's lobby and underground garage.
"They had fans airing everything out," Friedman said as she walked her dog near buzzing waterfront bars and restaurants. "It was not fun."
But she and her husband don't plan on seeking higher ground anytime soon.
"We've watched this place grow, and it's been great," Friedman said. "Water has a mind of its own, anyway."
Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/philip_marcelo