Vivien Li: Waterfront Guardian
For 24 years, The Boston Harbor Association president Vivien Li has been at the table with public officials and developers speaking for the environment and the public during the massive, multibillion-dollar transformation of the waterfront. Before she leaves for a similar role in Pittsburgh, she showed us what’s new.
After serving as a senior staffer for Gov. Michael Dukakis, Vivien joined TBHA. Early on, she met with federal judges who were considering moving the courthouse to the waterfront. State law regulating waterfront development (Chapter 91) requires public access, but the judges told her that federal mandates prevail over state or local. In the end, the judges decided to build their new facility on the Fan Pier and comply with the spirit of Chapter 91—providing a HarborWalk along their building, seating and public art. They really get the public access concept, Vivien says.
Back then, there were about 10 miles of HarborWalk. Developers were hard-pressed to see how their individual segments (often unconnected) would form a system spanning six waterfront neighborhoods. Some developers who bought into Vivien's vision include: Joe Fallon, John Drew, Fidelity, UDR, Hanover, Skanska, Berkshire, Boston Global Investors and Tishman Speyer. Last week, a new stretch of HarborWalk opened as part of the $3B UMass Boston overhaul. At the recently completed UDR/Hanover 100 Pier 4 apartment building, where luxury units are going fast, the lobby which is adorned with a $1M glass chandelier, and the restrooms are open to the public.
On its HarborWalk, UDR and Hanover also built a public fish cleaning station and a ladder down to the water. (More for getting out—if you fall—than getting it.) In her waterfront walks, Vivien often checks on maintenance. A few weeks ago, she noticed one set of binoculars—free to the public for viewing—was broken. It’s being replaced. Anthony Esposito, 25, and his father, Vinny, visitors from Charlotte, were surprised. Every other time he used these, he had to pay, Anthony tells us.
Almir Karadzic is working on Berkshire's One Seaport Square, the largest multifamily mixed-use project in the district: 832 apartments, 250k SF of retail and parking. It has a green terrace on the podium roof, indicative of the commitment to sustainability of many developers on the waterfront. Setting the standard in 2000, Fidelity’s Ned Johnson and The Drew Co’s John Drew built and rebuilt the public park between Seaport East and West and pushed to get the Silver Line waterfront route built. They, and the Beacon Co’s Norman Leventhal and Ed Sidman, who in 1987 developed Rowe’s Wharf on the downtown side of the harbor, were “visionaries,” Vivien says.
In the ‘90s, the waterfront was a struggling commercial area and artist haven. It was dominated by parking lots, tired 19th century warehouses, vacant lots and a few businesses. It was so deserted after five o’clock that Vivien and her female colleagues often walked in pairs. TBHA’s landlord on Congress Street gave them free rent to move in. Now, it’s so busy that the ICA (right), which moved into a build-to-suit on Fan Pier in ’06, is expanding via a bridge into the office building The Fallon Co is developing (left), anchored by Goodwin Procter, and slated for completion in a year.
It's not only white shoe firms that are moving into the waterfront and its largest development, Seaport Square, the $3B mixed-use, multi-building neighborhood master planned by Morgan Stanley and Boston Global Investors. Young innovators are piling into District Hall (above), a free, public innovation center built by the Seaport Square team at the behest of the late Mayor Menino. Now, the area is so popular, the struggle is how to keep it affordable as Mayor Walsh hopes to do, Vivien says. One surprise for her is how long it’s taken for developers to discover the waterfront communities in East Boston and Dorchester.
One suggestion she has: push for architecture that’s more inventive and pedestrian friendly at ground level. Some of the buildings are boxy and look uninspired, she says. But in line with Mayor Walsh’s call for creativity, new renderings are arriving that are much more exciting, like Skanska's 121 Seaport, which broke ground earlier this month. All along the way, TBHA, with the state environmental department and Boston Conservation Commission, has tried to ensure that people can enjoy the waterfront regardless of their finances. On Oct. 1, Vivien will assume the post of president/CEO of Pittsburgh’s Riverlife, hoping to share lessons from Boston as Pittsburgh adds open spaces and redevelops its riverfronts.