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Hurricane Lee Caused Minimal Damage But Highlighted Risk That Boston's Coastal Properties Face

The storm previously classified as Hurricane Lee grazed the East Coast over the weekend, leaving Massachusetts for the most part unscathed, despite serious warnings over the last week.

On Friday, Gov. Maura Healey issued an emergency declaration ahead of the storm expecting heavy rain, wind and coastal flooding throughout the weekend, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu held a press conference to prepare residents and business owners for the latest storm in a year that has seen historic rainfall.

Greater Boston this summer experienced the second-highest rain total on record, with storms over the last month causing extreme flooding in communities such as Leominster and North Andover, incidents that caused tens of millions of dollars in damages.

A sinkhole in Leominster was caused by excessive rainfall earlier this month.

As the hurricane approached, many in Boston braced for the type of flooding that often occurs even during minor storms, with some creating man-made barriers in apartment buildings to keep water out, CBS News reported. The storm ultimately had little impact on Massachusetts, creating rough seas and causing power outages in Cape Cod but making landfall farther north in Maine and Nova Scotia. 

“Given what the expectation was, we dodged a bullet,” said Mount Vernon Co. founder Bruce Percelay, who owns properties on Nantucket and in Boston. “The big damage wasn’t physical, it was economic because all of the hotels were impacted with people canceling reservations, weddings were canceled and the ferries aren’t running.”  

Even though the state avoided the worst of the potential outcomes from Hurricane Lee, the news of a major storm barreling toward New England over the last week served as a stark warning to residents and businesses, especially in at-risk coastal areas. 

For developers and property owners on the waterfront, the storm and the excessive rainfall the city and surrounding communities received over the summer were reminders of how susceptible their properties are to rising sea levels and storm surges. 

"This summer highlights that all communities need to think about flooding concerns and impacts of more intense weather patterns,” said Naomi Mayeux, vice president of National Development, in an emailed statement to Bisnow. “The waterfront is what we love most about Massachusetts and Boston, so I think we will continue to think smarter about how to build near the waterfront (and fortify), as opposed to shying away from it."

Across the Boston metro area, 23.1% of all office, retail and multifamily buildings are at risk of property damage due to flooding that could amount to $331M in damages annually, according to a 2021 First Street Foundation report. Communities could also see $2.5B in economic damages on top of the structural damage.

Just a week before Hurricane Lee, Boston suburbs faced major flood damage to buildings and infrastructure after heavy rainfall. Leominster saw approximately $40M in damages, with most downtown buildings experiencing flooding and some even collapsing, CBS News reported. In August, North Andover saw $30M in flood damage to dozens of businesses due to excessive rainfall, WBUR reported.

Boston leaders have long recognized the heightened challenges that come with sitting on the coast. In 2016, the city released its Climate Ready Boston report, which developed resiliency solutions along the city’s 47-mile coastline as sea levels continue to rise.

“We recognize that we, like the rest of the country and world, are feeling how climate change is exacerbating the severity and frequency of severe weather events,” said Boston Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space Mariama White-Hammond at a press conference about the storm. “The city has completed coastal resiliency for all of Boston’s entire 47-mile coastline, focusing on areas that are hit hardest by sea level rise in storms.”

The 2016 report detailed ways the city could address ongoing challenges with climate change through vulnerability assessments, updated climate change projections and areas of focus that are most impacted by the effects of climate change. These areas are in Charlestown, Charles River, Dorchester, Downtown, East Boston, Roxbury, South Boston and the South End.

Mariama White-Hammond, chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, speaking at a press conference about Boston's efforts to prepare for Hurricane Lee.

In 2021, the BPDA adopted Article 25A, or the Coastal Flood Resilience Overlay District, a zoning code that relates to areas prone to flooding and brings forth coastal flood resilience design guidelines for new construction and renovation projects.

That same year, city officials established the Climate Resiliency Fund that would help fund and finance climate resiliency projects like seawalls, berms and other natural sea barriers. The city asked private developers to contribute to the fund, as the cost for the most urgently needed protections a 191-acre area at high risk of flooding is estimated at $124M, the Boston Globe reported.

Developers who have proposed plans in the city’s most affected areas have drawn out detailed resiliency plans required under Article 25A to ensure that their projects and the surrounding neighborhoods are protected as these storms become more frequent and severe.

Jennifer Schultz, a partner at law firm Sullivan & Worcester, said her client, The Flatley Co., put forward a major resiliency plan for its 1.7M SF office and multifamily project on Charlestown’s riverfront. The redevelopment of the former Domino Sugar refinery included a comprehensive resiliency plan that would protect the neighborhood from potential flooding while also opening up the riverfront to the public.

“It takes some real convincing of a private company to shoulder a burden like this,” Schultz said. “For the benefit of the public, it's really because the philanthropic arm of the Flatley Co. in that family was willing to agree because it really is sort of an extraordinary form of charity.”

Similarly, Accordia Partners' 21-building Dorchester Bay City project includes a $166M climate resiliency component that will include a new stormwater management system and a 22-foot flood protection ridge along Dorchester’s waterfront, the Boston Globe reported. The project was approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s board of directors on Thursday night.

A rendering of Accordia's $5B Dorchester Bay City project.

Property owners and businesses near the Fort Point Channel, one of the lowest-lying areas in South Boston, have been worried about rising sea levels for years as consistent flooding has shaped the way people are thinking about the channel’s future.

National Development, in partnership with Alexandria Real Estate Equities, acquired 15 Necco St. in 2019 for $252M in an effort to build a 316K SF multitenant life sciences building. The development, sitting on the Fort Point Channel, has gone through extensive planning, which includes seawalls, self-closing flood barriers, rain gardens and elevation measures to combat “2070-modeled flood conditions.”

“Resiliency is and was a major driver throughout site and building planning,” National Development's Mayeux said. “There will always be inherent challenges in building within existing neighborhoods which you have to consider as well, as we also need to connect buildings to existing conditions — with pedestrian pathways, roadways and loading.”

In 2019, the Boston Children’s Museum partnered with Sasaki to address the flood risks along the Fort Point Channel after a storm surge flooded the streets adjacent to it. 

“They feel very vulnerable right now,” Sasaki principal Zachary Chrisco said. “There was a storm event a couple of years ago that brought the channel levels up to Elevation 10. So it was literally at their doorstep, and that was scary for them. It was a little bit of a wake-up call.”

In June, nonprofit Wharf District Council outlined a $1.2B plan to protect the city's $3.9B in infrastructure that would include flood storage tanks, sloped shorelines and other upgrades, the Boston Globe reported.

High tides in Boston have accelerated by more than triple the national average, and the city could see between 50 and 70 days of flooding due to high tides every year, according to a 2022 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. King’s tide, the highest tide level annually, could become a common occurrence in the Fort Point Channel and beyond as climate change continues to intensify.

In 2021, Boston Water and Sewer Commissioner Chief Engineer John Sullivan proposed a floodgate across the Fort Point channel to curb the excessive flooding that occurs both during high tide and during storm surges. The $767M project could help to protect the channel from this type of flooding, the Boston Globe reported.

As communities both on the Cape and on the Boston metro area let out a collective sigh of relief following the close call from Hurricane Lee this weekend, property owners do see it increasing awareness of flood risks. 

“[Nantucket] did not have the kind of flash floods that we did see in Boston, which were clearly unusual,” Percelay said. “These are unusual events and the question is, 'Are they flukes or are they a part of the new normal?'”