Skip to Content

Salt, cars, and fuel

In the second season of the HBO series The Wire, the port of Baltimore takes a starring role. It is depicted as a forbidding place of crime and corruption, where an intransigent longshoremen’s union and an overheated real estate market are on track to destroying a way of life on the docks. Everyone is stealing. Piers rust. Containers carry deadly cargo.

Nothing quite as floridly dramatic is besetting the real-life port of Boston today, but some of the same forces are at work. Development and environmental pressures are threatening traditional maritime industries like fishing and shipbuilding. Gritty businesses on the fish pier and rumbling truck traffic landside clash with new residents who like the romance of a working port but not its noisy, smelly reality. Between a growing cruise-ship business, commuter ferries, and pleasure boats, Boston’s marine vessels might soon be moving more people than cargo.

Urban waterfronts are the fern bars of the early-21st century: chic, expensive, generic signifiers of gentrification. Last year, the Seaport became the most expensive housing market in Boston, beating out the Back Bay. Millions of square feet of development are in the pipeline. Companies from Vertex to Reebok are moving into glassy new headquarters, bringing with them thousands of well-paid workers looking for the best tuna crudo or espresso martini.

Still, the old industrial port accounts for $4.6 billion in economic activity and 7,000 jobs. Fish processing is a growing industry, thanks to the proximity of Logan Airport and its export markets. Heating oil, jet fuel, and salt move up the Mystic and Chelsea rivers to Everett, and 80,000 cars were delivered to Charlestown’s Moran Terminal in fiscal year 2017. Twelve of the world’s top 15 shipping companies now list Boston as a port of call, up from five just a few years ago. The economic diversity that the working port provides for the region should not be lightly discounted in the rush to develop “clean” businesses such as boutique grocers and hotels.

This issue of ArchitectureBoston examines how to reconcile the competing claims on the city’s historic waterfront. It is a daunting challenge, as Dan Adams writes in “Arriving/Departing” (page 32), because the port’s industries “function like keystone species in an ecological web.” Finding a way to share this priceless resource is a design challenge and an economic imperative.

The ratepayers of Greater Boston spent $4 billion to clean up Boston Harbor, once one of the filthiest waterways in the world. Now harbor seals frolic in clear view of condos selling for $1,000 per square foot. The public that financed the harbor’s rebirth deserves to enjoy the benefits. Unfortunately, most of the glittering growth in the Seaport is decidedly private, with grudging bits of green space squeezed in. So far, efforts to bring a public school, a library, or a signature public park to the Seaport have faltered.

That could change with the Walsh administration’s interest in redeveloping Dry Dock No. 4, a deteriorating pier that is no longer needed for marine activity. The city is expected to solicit ideas for a public use at the site, and in the gallery beginning on page 38 (“Now docking”), we feature four creative visions from area designers to get the conversation started. The city has an opportunity to do something grand on these 6 acres, where the views, once an eyesore, are to die for.

Whatever is eventually built at Dry Dock No. 4 — and anywhere else along the harbor — will need to adjust to another implacable threat: rising seas and violent storms. This is an urgent challenge worthy of its own magazine, and, indeed, we plan to address design for climate change in an issue later this year. Resiliency is the creative interface between human development and the natural world, nowhere more evident than in a 400-year-old port.

Boston has been able to get rid of its “dirty water” reputation and still retain its identity. Now it needs to show that a clean harbor can also be a thriving place of maritime reinvention. ■