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How $80B Of CRE Is Fighting To Avoid Plunging Into Boston Harbor

Last Thursday’s brutal winter storm reminded Bostonians the city’s costliest real estate lies in a vulnerable floodplain, prompting residents to wonder if developers are doing enough to plan for the future. 

How $80B Of CRE Is Fighting To Avoid Plunging Into Boston Harbor
The Climate Ready Boston report identifies where in the city is most vulnerable to future flooding.

“It’s no doubt that it’s a wake-up call,” CBT principal Phil Casey said. “We spend so much time thinking about 2030, 2040 or 2050, but it’s today we should be talking about.”

Last week’s “bomb cyclone” hit Boston at high tide, giving the city its worst flooding since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1921. Fort Point dumpsters turned into watercraft, slushy waves encroached upon General Electric’s temporary headquarters on Farnsworth Street and water gushed into Aquarium Station. 

Waters quickly rose in the wildly popular Seaport and East Boston neighborhoods, leading some to wonder why developers continue to jockey for space in the vulnerable enclaves. But developers say they are doing their fair share to keep their heads and buildings above water.

“It’s important to note in the Seaport District there are different spots,” Cottonwood Management Project Executive Becky Mattson said. “The far end got flooded, and people assumed the entire thing was under water. It wasn’t. There are high spots, there are low spots.”

How $80B Of CRE Is Fighting To Avoid Plunging Into Boston Harbor
Flooding from Thursday's storm reached the front door at Woodman's of Essex.

Mattson’s firm broke ground in June on EchelonSeaport, a 1.3M SF mixed-use development that includes 733 condos and apartments, a 19K SF plaza and 125K SF of restaurants and retail. She said her company is adamant about taking resiliency into account in the design and construction of the project, from mechanical equipment on higher floors to building at higher grades on an already higher elevation in the Seaport.

Seaport resiliency is encouraged in the 2014 Urban Land Institute report "The Urban Implications Of Living With Water" that outlined phased, long-term planning to combat rising sea levels around Greater Boston. 

“We tried to address it with phasing and what you could do to avoid things like those dumpsters floating and how you could build upon that,” said Arrowstreet Architecture and Design principal Amy Korte, who also served as co-chair on the ULI initiative. “It depends on where the project is located. For the most part, it’s a question that our clients are asking early on. If they’re not, it’s something in the design process anyway.”

Newer Development Saves The Waterfront

One East Boston developer said newer development lessened the impact of Thursday’s flooding. Lendlease General Manager of Development Nick Iselin said the Eastie Greenway was protected from last week’s storm more than it was in the past, thanks to resiliency improvements made by Roseland Property at Portside at East Pier.

How $80B Of CRE Is Fighting To Avoid Plunging Into Boston Harbor
Echelon Seaport

Lendlease is executing long-term resiliency plans nearby at Clippership Wharf. The mixed-use development includes residential and retail, which Iselin said is protected thanks to building on a significantly higher plain at the seven-acre site.

The ground floor of residential units is at a level 25 on Boston’s city base measure for flooding. By comparison, the king tides that flood Long Wharf in the fall and winter are around a level 13. There are also flood barriers that can deploy to protect ground-floor retail at Clippership Wharf.

“From my perspective, we designed the site to anticipate this sort of thing. [Thursday] kind of went as expected,” Iselin said. “We’ve always described our project as a 100-year project.”

While many agree that climate change is behind rising sea levels and increased bouts of extreme weather in cities like Boston, not everyone is behind the idea. Boston Global Investors CEO and Managing Partner John Hynes told the Boston Herald in 2016 he had doubts about global warming and instead believed weather changes were simply historic cycling. The developer behind Seaport Square reiterated the sentiment to Bisnow this week.

“I don't think the public needs to turn this into a crisis issue somehow connected to global warming, etc. It appears that we get these unusual storms every 25 to 50 years,” he said. “So, this year we just happened to get one.”

A Costly Fix

Seaport Square was still constructed under city and state resiliency requests and placed vital mechanical equipment on higher floors, the Herald reports. But more aggressive, long-term solutions for potentially affected waterfront communities will cost far more than shifts in construction.

A Climate Ready Boston report explored the option of a four-mile storm barrier across Boston Harbor that would have gates that could close to protect low-lying areas from threatening storm surges in inclement weather. The measure could protect $80B of Boston’s most vulnerable real estate, but the solution itself is projected to cost billions of dollars.

How $80B Of CRE Is Fighting To Avoid Plunging Into Boston Harbor
Rendering of Slip65 in East Boston's Clippership Wharf

“I think the issue is whose responsibility it is to pay for them and how to pay for them, because right now, there aren’t economic incentives to help pay for resiliency solutions,” Iselin said. “Solutions are not cheap.”

The ULI and Climate Ready Boston reports show the city is taking resiliency seriously, but wide-scale implementation beyond the planning and approval process remains to be seen. The city requires developers to use a resiliency and preparedness checklist, but it often relies on the developer to decide how far a property’s resiliency should go.

“Resiliency is very much a work in progress right now,” Casey said. “The next phase is implementing at a broader level hopefully sooner rather than later.”

GE is implementing some of the most ambitious resiliency planning in the city at its new headquarters under construction along Fort Point Channel. The company is raising the ground level of the waterfront property by five feet to counter rising water, and district-wide strategies could turn GE’s ambitious approach into normalcy in tackling more frequent storms.

“I think the discussion of what to do about it is taking shape,” Iselin said. “The reality now is it’s every man for himself.”