Maps, urban planning, and open space: the saga of Long Wharf

When I was working, I would often take a walk from the office down to Long Wharf and look out at the harbor.  There is a small open shelter and some benches at the end.  Walking with co-workers, we talked about the plan to build a restaurant and wondered how it would change the peaceful quiet that one found there.  Years passed and nothing happened which was fine with us.

A bit of background.  According the National Park Service,

Construction of Long Wharf began in 1710, though the idea of building a new wharf over the remains of the Barricado—a 2,200 foot long defensive wall/wharf of stone and wood piles that encircled the harbor—had been discussed as early as 1707. The wharf extended from the base of King Street (now State Street) and provided direct access to the commercial center of colonial Boston. By 1711 a number of warehouses had been built atop the wharf, and by 1715 the last 600 feet of wharf were completed.

In its heyday, Long Wharf was 1,586 feet in length and 54 feet wide, providing docking facilities for up to 50 vessels. In the 18th century, Boston was the leading colonial port (it would be surpassed by both New York and Philadelphia by the end of the century). Long Wharf was the nucleus of Boston’s maritime trade—by the end of the 18th century it reigned pre-eminent among Boston’s 80 wharves, handling both international and coastal trade. Its extraordinary length allowed large ships to dock and unload directly into warehouses without the use of   small boats. Because the wharf served   private merchants and the public, who could buy directly from the warehouses and stores on the wharf, it was a marketplace long before the construction of Faneuil Hall (Quincy Market) in the 1820s.

In addition to the economic importance of the wharf, it was also associated with the military history of Boston. Among the events that occurred here were the landing of British troops in 1770 to enforce the King’s laws and the evacuation of the same troops in March 1776; the landing of a vessel from Philadelphia bringing news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and during the Revolution, privateers and blockade runners sailed from Long Wharf and military stores were kept in its warehouses.

And today, the NPS describes Long Wharf this way

The Long Wharf and Custom House Block, a National Historic Landmark, is located at the end of State St. and east of Atlantic Ave. in Boston Harbor. The wharf buildings have been converted to residential, commercial and office spaces. On the northwest side of the wharf, a wood planked walkway is lined with benches, and at the end of Long Wharf, there is a large plaza, a covered shelter and a pink stone compass rose, which is  set into the ground. Various tour boat operators are located on the wharf and dock their vessels here.

The plans of the BRA to build a restaurant on the historic wharf may have been ended by the discovery of a National Park Service map.  The story of how the map was found is a fascinating one.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority was so close to realizing its vision of a restaurant on the tip of Long Wharf that you could almost smell the fried clams.

For nearly five years, BRA officials had fought a group of determined North End residents who had raised objections in administrative hearings and state courts.

The BRA spent close to a quarter of a million dollars on legal bills. Last year it finally won a Supreme Judicial Court decision almost certainly clearing the way for a private company to build Doc’s Long Wharf restaurant on the dramatic public space jutting into Boston Harbor.

But it seems that BRA officials, in their zeal to promote waterfront dining, failed to take into account an old map outlining the edge of Long Wharf as protected space. According to a 1980s agreement, the BRA had promised to forever preserve it for outdoor recreation.

Map of Long Wharf with the proposed restaurant marked.

Map of Long Wharf with the proposed restaurant marked.

It took a retired National Park Service employee to read an earlier Globe story, get a map from archives and bring things to a halt.

A retired National Park Service manager, reading about the controversy in the Globe, remembered the map and made a call. Sure enough, the Park Service found the 1980s map in a federal archive in Philadelphia, prompting a state judge to put the restaurant plans on hold in late December and leaving the BRA with ketchup on its face.

“The strange manner in which the [newly discovered map] came to light requires this court” to allow the map into evidence “in the interests of justice,” Suffolk Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Fahey wrote in voiding the restaurant’s state environmental permit and calling for the BRA to reapply, this time using the correct map.

But the  BRA being so convinced that no one else can ever be right seems to be pushing on.

Opponents of the proposed restaurant, many of them neighbors untrained in the law who spent countless hours preparing legal briefs to counter the BRA, said Fahey’s ruling probably settles a debate that should never have begun in the first place. “To us, discovery of the right map means we definitely should win,” said Sanjoy Mahajan, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a former neighbor of the site, and a restaurant opponent. “We think this undercuts the entire BRA case. We only wish it had come to light earlier.”

But the BRA appears determined to plow on. It requested court permission to conduct its own investigation into the map, describing it in court filings as a mere “sketch” and as a “roughly drawn rendering” made by “an unknown individual . . . allegedly found” in archives.

BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said: “We are following the process in good faith, and we will get to the bottom of this. Our mission is to get people to enjoy the waterfront, and not let a few neighbors trump the public interest.”

But people do enjoy the park.  On a nice day to sit and watch the boats and the gulls while the breeze blows and it is quiet is a wonderful thing.  I understand the goal of the BRA is development, but one does not have to build everywhere.  When I was working for the City of Somerville, there was a fire and a house was destroyed.  Someone asked Mike Capuano, the Mayor at the time, what he thought should be built there.  His response, “Probably nothing.”  Somerville was, at the time, the most densely populated city in Massachusetts, if not the United States.  It needed some green space and the lot became open space.  Once does not need to build on every square inch of land.

“I don’t know what map they were using before, but I provided them with the one we have on record for that project,” Jack W. Howard, a National Park Service manager, said in an interview.

The new map, pulled from National Park Service files, shows that the proposed restaurant lies squarely within the bounds of a park financed under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Federal law prohibits such restaurants in these federally funded parks with few exceptions. Apparently no one had previously asked the Park Service for a copy of the map.

Edward Rizzotto was a young National Park Service manager in the 1980s when a deal was struck for the federal government to provide almost $1 million to clean up the tip of the wharf. He says — and documents later uncovered by restaurant opponents bear this out — that the BRA agreed to record an easement guaranteeing it to be open space for 99 years.

“This was always intended as public open space in perpetuity,” Rizzotto, 70, said during an interview on the park site.

The park reaches into wind-swept Boston Harbor, a 35,000-square-foot plaza paved with granite flagstones, with a bronze plaque proclaiming Long Wharf Park and bearing the BRA’s  name. On one side of the site is an open air brick pavilion that provides shade for summertime picnickers.

More than 25 years passed before the BRA decided in 2006 that more people would enjoy one of the city’s premier outdoor spots if the pavilion were converted into a restaurant and tavern. Agency officials envisioned indoor and outdoor tables, live entertainment, takeout service, and food and alcohol until 1 a.m.

After years of hearings and a pile of legal briefs, a story on the restaurant battle published on the front page of the Globe on Oct. 10, 2012, caught the eye of Rizzotto, he said. He wondered why the restaurant plan had gotten so far when he recalled that the entire area was protected. Rizzotto eventually contacted Howard, the National Park Service manager, with whom he once worked. A search of the archives dredged up the one-page map now central to the case.

By then, the case had been argued before the Supreme Judicial Court but had not been decided. The map circulated among the Park Service, the Environmental Protection Department, the BRA, and restaurant opponents, but no one informed the court of its discovery. Fahey, who ruled on remaining state issues in the restaurant fight nine months after the SJC decision, noted that the BRA did not alert the SJC “that the material it was then considering may be incorrect.”

The Long Wharf area already has the Aquarium and hotels.  I hope that the end of the wharf remains the equivalent of open space.  As I learned 18 years ago, there is no need to build on every square inch of land.

Mayor Marty Walsh has called for a financial and programmatic audit of the BRA.  I hope the auditors look at this incident and ask why so much tax payer money was spent of legal fees.  Maybe it could have been spent on some new benches instead.

Map is from court filing and published in the Boston Globe.

4 thoughts on “Maps, urban planning, and open space: the saga of Long Wharf

  1. Thank you for the history of the wharf. And for the recent history and the BRA’s shameful role in ignoring and actually concealing the Park Service map from the Supreme Court. I hope Marty Walsh is capable of reining in this organization and making it more accountable to the people in the city.

    • I’m happy that he is having an audit done before any reorganization. Having some documentation as back-up will help with people accepting the changes.

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