-By John Lynds
It’s been close to four years since East Boston has heard anything about the Portside at Pier I project. The property developer Roseland, property owner Massport and even elected officials have been tight lipped on a stalled project that was supposed to breath new life into the dilapidated waterfront and the community as a whole.
Residents here have been patiently waiting for major waterfront development to take place and have sat by and watched in frustration as the waterfronts of the North End, Charlestown and South Boston bloomed.
The economic downturn killed the development and many, many others.
However, now rumors are circulating that Roseland has acquired an equity partner but the development team and those close to the project are still keeping progress on the development close to the vest.
Word on the street is that money from the Carpenter’s Union Pension Fund will kick start the stalled development. We are told that the partnership is aimed at giving Roseland much needed capital to get the project off the ground while at the same time putting hundreds of carpenter’s back to work in this down economy.
A call to Roseland was not immediately returned but plans would include building the rental component of the waterfront development first on the back lot of Pier I. This would then generate revenue for Roseland to begin developing the luxury condos many people in the neighborhood have wanted to see for decades along the water’s edge.
The only caveat is that high end condos in Boston aren’t selling in the down market which means they wouldn’t sell here, either. Let’s face it, if you can’t sell a condo in some of the best parts of Boston, how could anyone expect to sell them here?How can one even expect them to be built if they can’t be sold? And on and on and on.
After a lengthy permitting process and years of community planning, Massport held two meetings in the community in 2007 to sell Roseland’s case for stopping work on the waterfront development.
Again, nothing is guaranteed in this economic environment. Developments don’t just happen. There needs to be available money from major banks or investors and demand. Right now, there is virtually no demand and major banks are not exactly lending millions for new developments.
The work halt on Pier I was called a small bump in the road by a Roseland spokeswoman in July 2007. She said Roseland was switching contractors and a few details had to be worked out.
Less than a month later Massport was trying to rally Eastie behind a plan aimed at getting Roseland out of a financial jam.
Who better to advocate for an Eastie development other than Eastie business interests?
Massport’s Development Director Lowell Richards sang the same song and dance about how the rising cost in construction, especially the costs associated with stabilizing the actual pier to support the housing, coupled with the project’s affordable housing component and the decline in Boston’s condo market, were threatening to sideline the waterfront development for good. And he is absolutely right.
Richards at this time is only ‘suggesting’ the buildings Roseland proposed to construct on the pier be moved to the adjacent lot that was the long-promised site of Piers Park Phase II.
This, Richards said, would offset a lot of the increases in construction costs and allow Roseland to still make a profit.
Richards also suggested that the affordable housing component of the project be moved off site. This would make the entire project market rate and, in some cases, more attractive to investors.
The problem for residents at the time was that after two meetings in the community in 2007, Richards had yet to provide any other option except for the land swap idea.
While plans to move Phase II out onto Pier I would add an additional two acres of public open space, the idea has not been well received by members of the Piers Park Advisory Committee (Piers PAC) and even less well received by residents.
Residents, some with a history of being disappointed by Massport over the years, said they could almost sense this was coming.
“They never wanted to give us that land to build a park on,” yelled one resident at the meeting in 2007,” and we’ll probably never get another park like Piers Park as long as Massport’s in control of the land.”
And this might well be true. Except to say, what neighborhood anywhere in East Boston has two parks built by Massport that are the equivalent of Piers Park?
In December 2006, after meeting with elected officials and then Senate President Robert Travaglini, Piers PAC members reluctantly agreed to allow Roseland to use the future site of Phase II as its staging area for the construction of Pier I. At that time, Roseland spokesmen said using the Phase II site would save the company over $16 million in costs.
In return, Roseland agreed to grade the land at the Phase II site after Pier I was constructed. This would have made the site “park-ready” by 2010.
The problem for Piers PAC members and the community this time around is that there are no guarantees if or when a park could be built on Pier I. Additionally; the design phase to place a park on the Phase II is 90 percent complete.
The fear is that if they agree to allow Roseland to build on the Phase II site then plans to put a park on Pier I would have to start from scratch with a whole new design phase. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a state bond authorization would come through to fund the park’s construction. This could mean there would be no additional green space in the area for quite some time.
With the newest development in the long saga of Eastie’s waterfront, it remains unclear that if Roseland goes forward whether they or Massport will continue to tout the land swap idea.
One thing is for certain, it is 2011 and there is still no Pier I development or Piers Park Phase II.
Let’s hope the economy turns around this deal gets done once and for all.