East Boston waterfront rebirth begins

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January 28, 2013, 7:11 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, East Boston, Mass.) “Just look across the harbor: Is there a better view in this whole City of Boston than right here?’’

That reaction from Mayor Thomas M. Menino Monday was the reaction so many Bostonians and New Englanders have when they finally find their way to the “other” waterfront, the East Boston waterfront, offering a postcard – even Hollywood – view of the Inner Harbor and financial district skyline, sweeping all the way from the Tobin Bridge to the growing Innovation District.

For decades, real-estate developers have dreamed of selling this view to homeowners and renters, and after fits and starts and stalled developments, on Monday, Menino and Governor Deval L. Patrick and a host of local dignitaries celebrated construction beginning at Roseland’s Portside at Pier One. The first of a planned seven buildings is a $46 million complex with 176 apartments, retail space on the ground floor, planned to be part of a 550-unit complex on 13 acres of land owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority.

“East Boston has shown lots of patience,’’ Menino said. “Now, we're going to show East Boston progress.’’

Patrick called the project a great example of government helping invest in private-sector growth and said: “I so look forward to seeing this project rise up off the water and out of the ground.’’

With beautiful, lively harbor-front views as ferries and sailboats and giant tankers ply the waters, what's kind of amazing is how much residential redevelopment has not yet happened on the East Boston waterfront. From Portside at Pier One north towards the Tobin Bridge, there are several projects that have secured government permits that have been languishing for years, like New Street, Hodge Boiler Works, and Clippership Wharf.

Experts say it’s been in large part a combination of the cost and complexity of winning environmental approvals to build on waterfront land, and real estate boom and bust cycles that turn sour before construction begins. Portside, for example, started in 2000 and had piles driven in 2007, but then went idle as the Great Recession hit.

At the same time, many of the projects faced a wary, even hostile reception from neighborhood groups in East Boston, a working-class, increasingly Latino neighborhood. Many Eastie leaders feared the waterfront projects might gentrify and yuppify their neighborhood, and begin to raise overall rents and prices in the Jeffries Point and Maverick Square areas, squeezing out longtime lower-income residents as many have complained gentrification did in the South End of Boston, South Boston, and the Central Square and Cambridgeport areas of Cambridge.

Addressing those concerns, 26 of the 176 apartment being built in the first phase of Portside at Pier One will be mandated to be affordable to lower-income residents, and the project is guaranteeing public access to the harborfront and an extension of a harborwalk leading to Massport’s Piers Park.

City Councilor Sal LaMattina said: “We made sure that this project worked for East Boston, that it was not going to become a gated community, that people from East Boston would be able to walk down to the waterfront, continue the harborwalk to the Piers Parks.’’ Congressman Michael Capuano, whose immigrant grandfather once settled in East Boston, said he is confident the project “will preserve affordability and preserve the balance of East Boston.’’

Probably not coincidentally, of all the development projects on the books with Massport and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the first phase of Portside at Pier One is the very closest to public transportation, two blocks from the Maverick MBTA Blue Line station.

Menino said he hopes, as earlier projects in prior decades kicked off the redevelopment of the Charlestown Navy Yard and North End waterfront and the Innovation District taking shape in Southie, Portside “will send out a sign, a message to the other projects: People better get going, because we're on your tail.’’

With videographer John J. Hammann

Tags: Peter Howe, East Boston, redevelopment, waterfront, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Roseland's Portside at Pier One
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