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Vestiges Of Massachusetts’ Maritime Past Have Become Flashpoint In Debate Over Its Future


Dotted with rusted industrial buildings and vacant parking lots, nearly 100 acres along East Boston’s waterfront have long been limited to water-dependent industrial use, barring the development of housing or commercial buildings along the harbor.

The port-area sites that were historically home to shipbuilding companies have sat vacant for decades — some for more than a century — leading some community members to call for changes in the state’s regulations that have prevented any new nonindustrial development along the waterfront.

“My father worked on the shipyards for all his life, and these were things that were important to East Boston,” said Al Caldarelli, whose nonprofit is looking to develop affordable housing on the waterfront. “Times have changed. The Navy no longer brings ships to Boston. There's nothing happening on these sites.”

Parts of East Boston's waterfront are lined with old, rusted buildings or vacant parcels due to restrictive zoning that has barred any use that isn't water-dependent industrial.

The sites are restricted because they are part of a Designated Port Area, a state protection enacted in 1866 to preserve land for industrial uses that rely on deep water access and waterfront infrastructure. The DPA protections prevent any residential, hospitality, office or other commercial uses that aren’t directly related to marine industrial activity.

But following a push from dozens of community members, a lawsuit from a property owner and a letter from Mayor Michelle Wu, the state agency overseeing the port policy has begun to reduce the boundaries of East Boston’s DPA zone to allow more development.

“These lands have the unique ability to help address East Boston’s most pressing needs,” Wu said in her letter.

The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management in December removed 8.6 of the 97 acres from the restricted zone in East Boston after Wu called for more housing and climate-resilient infrastructure. The move allows more development to occur on those properties, but the remainder of the DPA, along with 10 others that line the Massachusetts coast, still face these limitations.

The DPA zones cover hundreds of acres in Gloucester, Salem, Lynn, Everett, Chelsea, East Boston, South Boston, Weymouth, New Bedford and Somerset.

Some of these waterfront areas haven’t housed port-related industrial activity in generations, leading city officials to push the state to remove the restrictions and allow new commercial and residential development. Other local leaders still embrace their DPA zones as they look to hold onto historic coastal industries like fishing or add new green energy uses like offshore wind facilities.

Removing the DPA restrictions is a largely irreversible decision — once communities have built new waterfront development, there is no guarantee they can be used for marine industrial uses in the future. Massachusetts only has so many coastal areas that can house those industries.

“The places in the state where we have designated for land are the only places within the state with those kinds of unique characteristics,” said Deanna Moran, vice president of health and resilient communities at the Conservation Law Foundation, which supports preserving DPA zones.

Local leaders now face a high-stakes decision about whether to push for new development to address priorities like housing affordability or to keep these finite waterfront areas preserved for industrial use and hope they can see a port-related boom.

Massachusetts isn’t the only state making these long-term decisions about its coast. Last year, the Biden administration partnered with 11 governors on the East Coast to expand offshore wind development and created a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030. States like New York, California, Louisiana and Virginia have all begun looking to develop offshore wind terminals at their ports.

With new development opportunities arising on these ports — whether marine industrial, housing or other uses — issues of climate change and resilient planning have been at the front of local leaders’ minds as they look for new ways to protect their communities from sea level rise.

Four of the 10 Designated Port Areas are located in or near Boston Harbor.

Caldarelli, the executive director of the East Boston Community Development Corp., has been fighting to get a specific piece of land removed from the jurisdiction of East Boston’s DPA. In January, the EBCDC filed a lawsuit against the state Office of Coastal Zone Management for its decision not to remove the DPA designation from the nonprofit developer’s two parcels at 80 and 102 Border St.

Surrounded by multifamily buildings on two of its sides and the waterfront on the other, the 102 Border St. site remains undeveloped, used as a dirt parking lot for local workers and a garden.

The letter that CZM wrote in December, which was posted on its website but hasn’t been previously reported, said it received dozens of letters from the community asking it to allow development on the 102 Border St. site, but it said it won’t remove the property from the DPA.

The CZM removed parcels in Jeffries Point, including the Jeffries Yacht Club and parcels on Sumner, Marginal and Jeffries streets. Although the sites had historically been used for water-dependent uses, the agency argued that the area is, for the most part, residential, and the water the yacht club uses is fairly shallow, according to its 2021 boundary review. The DPA’s size decreased from 97.18 acres to 88.57 acres, according to the letter.

EBCDC argued in its complaint that its two properties, sitting next to housing, art galleries and offices, “are not viable for maritime industrial use.”

The parking lot on the 102 Border St. site, which has been restricted from development due to the DPA designation.

The lawsuit is ongoing, and Caldarelli said his group’s sites will continue to sit vacant until something can be done.

“For almost 100 years, it's been advertised for marine industrial, and there hasn't been a whiff of interest,” Caldarelli said. “We're not against marine industrial. We want it to happen, but we want it to happen in a decent and sensible way.”

Boston City Councilor Gabriela Coletta, who represents East Boston, said the DPA has made it hard to move forward with some of the city’s goals and is hindering the work of organizations like the EBCDC.

“Anytime you have an added layer of regulation and bureaucracy, it does make it hard, especially for the people on the ground that are doing the work,” Coletta said. “It has become a barrier, and it is really tough to get beyond that.”

Coletta wants the state to modernize the boundaries of the DPA and make sure these marine industrial uses are protected while creating new access to the waterfront for residents.

“It has to be a healthy balance between the maritime industries that are there,” Colleta said. “Some of those parcels really still depend on that designation, while others, it really just doesn’t make sense. Some of those parcels are really vulnerable to coastal flooding.”

Placing A Bet On New Waterfront Development

Just up the Mystic River from East Boston, similar pushback has been bubbling up in Everett as city officials try to build up a thriving entertainment hub around their 4-year-old waterfront casino. The DPA protections have stood in the way of those efforts.

Wynn Resorts acquired the Mystic Generating Station in Everett for $25M.

Matt Lattanzi, Everett’s director of planning and development, said that although he understands why the restriction is in place, maritime industrial isn’t the type of use that the city desperately needs. The city has been trying to redevelop the 45-acre Mystic Generating Station power plant that has been mostly decommissioned and was put up for sale last year by Constellation Energy.

In July, state Rep. Daniel Ryan filed an amendment to the House’s $3.8B economic development bill that would have removed the site from the DPA, making way for other uses, such as a widely rumored bid from the Kraft Group for a New England Revolution soccer stadium.

The amendment didn’t pass, leaving the site restricted from any uses other than marine industrial. But last month, Wynn Resorts — the developer of Everett’s Encore Boston Harbor casino — bought the majority of the Mystic Generating Station site for $25M.

This sale may spur a new push to take the parcel out of the DPA.

“We are now being stifled by this DPA restriction, where, on our end, we're doing all we can,” Lattanzi said. “There's only so much that we can do for this parcel of land. It sets a road map for the rest of the redevelopment of the area, which I think everyone in the state wants to see as a positive development.”

The $2.5B Encore Boston Harbor casino was built on land that had previously been industrial and hadn’t been accessed by the public for over a century. The 27-story building, visible from Boston, now serves as a signal of Everett’s economic growth.

But for drivers crossing the Alfred Street Bridge into Everett, the first thing they see is the Mystic power plant site, Lattanzi said.

“What we don't want to see is a continuation, even if it's an improvement, of this heavy industrial use of land, particularly where this is the gateway into Everett,” Lattanzi said.

The city has seen pushback from the CZM and environmental advocates because the property sits right on the waterfront and can still be used for marine industrial, and they say taking it out of the DPA could cause ripple effects across the region.

“The issue is that this question is much bigger than one individual municipality,” Moran said. “The decision of one municipality will undermine the entire DPA regulatory program, which has implications for all of the DPAs.”

'It's A New Industry For The Region'

Some port cities and towns haven’t made a push to remove parcels in their DPAs but instead see the protections as important for the future of the regional economy.

A rendering of Salem's offshore wind terminal, which is set to begin construction in the fall.

An hour south of Boston, New Bedford has taken the lead in green energy development by constructing the first offshore wind project in Massachusetts. In 2015, the city completed a two-year construction project of its Marine Commerce Terminal, a 29-acre waterfront facility used to assemble and deploy offshore wind turbines.

In the years following New Bedford’s project, the state has made considerable effort to boost more offshore wind development. Last year, then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Act to Promote Energy Diversity to help further propel offshore wind and open the gates for more companies to enter the industry.

Salem, a city in Massachusetts’ North Shore region, began showing interest in offshore wind following New Bedford’s project.

In October, Crowley Maritime bought a 42-acre parcel in the city’s DPA with plans to redevelop the site into an offshore wind port, which city officials and community members had been advocating for.

“It wasn’t the city leading with ‘this shall be an offshore wind port’ specifically, but we were encouraging the property owner to look at it,” said Tom Daniel, Salem’s director of planning and community development. “We're really fortunate that our story of the DPA is one where we've been able to take a property that was this coal plant, which transitioned to this gas plant, and now we're able to see it through to clean energy production.”

With support from Kim Driscoll, the former mayor of Salem who was elected lieutenant governor in November, the city is set to begin construction on its offshore wind terminal later this year. Daniel said he hopes the next mayor can continue to champion these types of uses on Salem’s waterfront. The city has had an interim mayor since Driscoll became lieutenant governor, and it is holding a special election for the seat next month.

“I look to the new mayor being a champion to communicate about opportunities in terms of workforce,” Daniel said. “This is an industry not just for Salem, but it's a new industry for the region and for businesses to see how they might fit in better, which applies to the supply chain.”

Nationally, President Joe Biden is pushing for more offshore wind projects as part of his administration’s wider climate change plan. Biden has set a goal to make the nation’s electric grid carbon-free by 2035 with the help of these massive wind farm projects, PBS reported.

In February, the administration announced plans to expand the offshore wind program outside of the East Coast with three properties in the Gulf Coast of Mexico off the coast of Texas and Louisiana that could generate enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. Other proposed wind projects include Dominion Energy’s $9.8B offshore wind project in Virginia.

Some communities on the waterfront face another challenge if they do decide to redevelop: rising sea levels.

Alice Brown, chief of planning and policy at Boston Harbor Now, said DPAs run into problems when sea levels rise, and the communities need to find ways to prevent flooding during storms and high tides.  

“In all these places, they are finding different, unique ways to mitigate their flood risk, because they know that they need to be right next to the water,” Brown said. “It is a really different conversation than when fresh developments go in.”

Coletta said that when parcels sit vacant on the waterfront, it leaves less opportunity to protect communities from flooding. East Boston went through a two-phase climate project between 2017 and 2022 that helped to improve its coastal resilience through creative uses of open space as part of the Climate Ready Boston plan.

“We have to think about this holistically,” Coletta said. “When I hear about parcels still in the DPA but they’re not being utilized to their best possible use and they’re on the waterfront, I always think about how I can turn that parcel into something that can protect the community.”

While DPA properties sitting vacant and going up for sale may indicate to communities that maritime industrial isn’t the best use for the sites, Moran said that may soon change as the offshore wind industry continues to become more important.

“I think we're actually in a short lull period of transition between port industries of the past and where we're going,” Moran said. “If we let that narrative overtake, then over the next several years, as we're seeing a surge in green energy and blue tech businesses, we may not have anywhere to put them that is economically viable for them.”