Boston’s defenses against rising seas lean on private development. What happens when the money dries up? – The Boston Globe

Must Read

All of it demonstrates the risk of the city’s strategy — across multiple mayoral administrations — of leaning on the private sector to help pay for an essential public good, multiple coastal resilience experts told the Globe.

“If there’s no market for real estate or no financing, you get stalled,” said Bud Ris, a senior adviser for the Boston Green Ribbon Commission who advised the city on its climate resilience plan. “At the moment, it’s sort of difficult to see how all of this is going to get financed.”

The 776 Summer St project, a redevelopment of the former Edison power plant, includes building a $12 million sea wall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In an emailed statement, city spokesperson Stacia Sheputa said Boston’s climate adaptation strategy is not wholly reliant on development. The city is targeting its attention on easily penetrated areas of the coastline such as South Boston’s Moakley Park and Long Wharf downtown, Sheputa said, and determining how to ensure that flood pathways on the shores continue to be blocked “in the case that development does not proceed at the expected pace.”

Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration has allocated $111 million for coastal resilience projects, the most in city history, according to Sheputa.

A majority of the city’s coastline is privately held or controlled, according to data provided by the city. It’s expensive to build sea walls and other flood infrastructure, and experts say that has left little option for city officials but to partner with private landowners on efforts to keep Boston dry in an urgently warming world.

“Unless we have a breakthrough in municipal financing, we are reliant on developers to pay for climate resilience,” said Julie Wormser, senior policy adviser of the Mystic River Watershed Association, an environmental nonprofit.

In the real estate boom years before the pandemic, private developers flocked to Boston’s waterfront, changing the face of flood-vulnerable neighborhoods like South Boston, East Boston, and Dorchester with condos and apartments, trendy restaurants, and expanded stretches of Harborwalk.

As developers proposed projects large and small, city officials often convinced them to include expensive climate protections in their plans — using the 2016 “Climate Ready” strategy, which outlined Boston’s vulnerabilities to climate change and a loose set of local solutions, as a guide. Officials hoped that infrastructure improvements would both protect the new development and block flood waters from penetrating low-lying neighborhoods around them.

Flooding on Lewis Street in East Boston at high tide on Feb. 10.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Bigger, broader solutions — including a harbor-wide barrier of concrete gates — were floated, but ultimately rejected. (Experts found the barrier idea ineffective, expensive, and environmentally damaging.)

In the last decade’s building boom, Boston increasingly relied on the private sector to finance public infrastructure, from MBTA stations to bike lanes, so why not sea walls too? But some worry that approach leaves the city’s climate defenses too beholden to the whims of the market.

“We have to rely on private investment until we get some real federal dollars and state dollars to help,” said City Councilor Gabriela Coletta, whose district includes East Boston. “But how do we compel developers to move as quick as we want them to?”

At the power plant in South Boston, deconstruction of the dusty-pink boilerhouse on the property is nearly complete, but work to construct new buildings and the sea wall — initially planned to start last year — has been pushed out to about 2025.

‘We should have been doing this 30 years ago’

Climate change poses an imminent danger to many Boston communities.

Sea levels here have been rising a few inches per decade as glaciers melt and warmer temperatures expand ocean waters. This decade, the water line in Boston Harbor will likely increase between 3 and 7 inches (compared to 2000, it could rise as much as 14.4 inches with continued high emissions of greenhouse gases). Much of the Seaport and Fort Point neighborhoods could be inundated with as much as 1 to 3 feet of water during an extreme storm if no new infrastructure is built by the early 2030s, according to a state model of future flood risks.

The Wu administration touts “resiliency” as a key focus, and many developers plan to incorporate flood-protection infrastructure in their projects.

At the 15-acre power plant site, developers Hilco Redevelopment Partners and Redgate said they will build a $12 million, 659-foot-long sea wall. At the former Bayside Expo Center near the University of Massachusetts Boston, developer Accordia Partners plans a 2.7-acre waterfront park at its Dorchester Bay City project. That park, along with an estimated $18.5 million in resiliency improvements nearby and elevating the site itself, will protect both the project’s 36 acres and parts of South Boston and Dorchester behind it.

And in Charlestown, developer Flatley Co. plans to invest $50 million in a roughly half-mile-long barrier along the Mystic River near Sullivan Square — a wall that city development officials say will protect not just Flatley’s 1.8-million-square-foot project but also more than “200 acres of Charlestown, plus hundreds of acres of Somerville and Cambridge.”

At top, an aerial view of Bayside Exposition Center in 1983. Below, a rendering of the 36-acre Dorchester Bay City site.Ted Dully/Globe Staff, Stantec

These are among dozens of flood barriers outlined in the Climate Ready plan. More than half, the plan estimated, will need to be in place by the early 2030s — and many of those are on privately held or controlled land, a Globe analysis found.

Climate scientists say the planet still has time to cut greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But for a low-lying waterfront city like Boston, experts said, new infrastructure is already long overdue.

“Are we going to do this in time? The answer is no,” said Jill Valdés Horwood, a longtime waterfront advocate and director of the Boston Waterfront Initiative at the Barr Foundation. “We should have been doing this 30 years ago.”

‘Boston’s next Big Dig’

For developers, it’s tough to justify an investment in flood barriers without any new buildings to protect, said Melissa Schrock, an executive vice president with Hilco, which bought the South Boston power plant with developer Redgate eight years ago for $24.25 million.

“They’re intricately tied together,” Schrock said. “They cannot be separated.”

Large projects like Hilco’s take a long time to get underway. City approval for the power plant redevelopment took almost four years amid neighborhood pushback over its size and scale. Meticulous deconstruction of the asbestos-ridden boilerhouse adjacent to the plant took another two, and cost $60 million.


alt name for image

Demolition inside the 776 Summer St project, site of the former Edison power plant on the waterfront.
(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)


alt name for image

Hilco Redevelopment Partners and Redgate plan to add landfill at their waterfront site.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

Next up: building two research labs and hauling in 15,000 cubic yards of clean fill material to raise the property’s elevation by 5 feet. Standing on the water’s edge recently, Schrock said she hopes construction can begin in 2025.

Others worry prior waterfront developments were waved through too fast, with too little care to balancing the impact new projects have on existing communities. Before the pandemic walloped commercial real estate development, waterfront neighborhoods in South and East Boston rapidly transformed from barren plots of land to new luxury housing.

On a recent sunny day, Councilor Coletta sat in a newly expanded and elevated Piers Park on the East Boston waterfront. The park overlooks what was once an industrial no-man’s-land, where Coletta recalled learning to drive. Today, it’s full of high-end apartments and condos on elevated land, with berms beneath the greenery and restored marsh areas to sponge up rising tides.

While those new housing projects protect their own properties from rising seas, Coletta noted, they can still leave pathways for flood waters to race into older basement apartments nearby.

At Clippership Wharf, for instance, developer Lendlease built hundreds of market-rate homes along with affordable homes across the street. In between, however, sits a dog park that routinely floods, a channel to the sea that could bring flood waters to the neighborhood, Coletta worries. City officials in 2022 applied for a federal grant to protect the park.

To coordinate efforts beyond a project-by-project approach, Coletta is calling for a single entity or city director to oversee coastal resilience. She said the city could create a Waterfront Business Improvement District, similar to efforts that already exist in downtown, that could ask waterfront property owners to pool money for projects. She called building climate adaptation projects “Boston’s next ‘Big Dig.’ ”

High tide in East Boston near Lewis Street. The area has seen many new projects close to the water. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“When we’re relying on developers, it’s largely on their timeline,” Coletta said, “and we just don’t have that time anymore.”

‘We need to solve this’

At least one Boston neighborhood is already pooling resources to combat sea level rise: the Wharf District, a collection of condominiums, offices, hotels, and restaurants downtown from Christopher Columbus Park to Congress Street. The district’s 16 property owners in recent months secured $500,000 in state aid, along with another $100,000 from their own members, to hire global engineering and sustainability consulting firm Arup to create a resiliency plan for the neighborhood.

It outlines $1.2 billion in upgrades to protect not just the Wharf District but also the $3.9 billion in downtown infrastructure behind it, including the Central Artery Tunnel and the Aquarium Blue Line station.

The Wharf District Council and Arup hope their study can serve as a guidepost for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is completing its own study of climate risk on Boston Harbor. That study was initially expected to be completed in 2026, but has recently been pushed out to 2028 “due to the size, scope, and complexity of the project,” the Army Corps said.

Given the varied ownership of the Massachusetts coastline, climate adaptations must rely on the combined efforts of federal, state, and city governments, not just the private sector, said Arup’s Brian Swett.

“Climate change is an existential threat to the vibrancy of Boston — not only current Boston, but all of future Boston,” he said. “We need to solve this.”

It’s not the first time Boston has corralled public and private sectors for a massive infrastructure project, noted Valdés Horwood of the Barr Foundation. This is the same city that cleaned up its harbor (after being ordered to do so by a federal judge) and executed the $24 billion Big Dig.

“Boston should feel really proud and hopeful that we’ve done this before,” she said. “There’s no reason why we are not doing it right now.”

Coastal flooding along the Harborwalk, near the New England Aquarium.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Erin Douglas can be reached at erin.douglas@globe.com. Follow her @erinmdouglas23. Catherine Carlock can be reached at catherine.carlock@globe.com. Follow her @bycathcarlock.

Latest News

Horoscopes June 19, 2024: Macklemore, put your energy where it counts

CELEBRITIES BORN ON THIS DAY: Macklemore, 41; Zoe Saldana, 46; Jean Dujardin, 52; Paula Abdul, 62. Happy Birthday: Don’t fear...

More Articles Like This