Downtown View:The Seaport.Is Anyone There?

By Karen Cord Taylor

Last week this column was about fish. This week there are other matters to consider about the seaport surrounding the Seaport District.

The first is the most heralded.

“The harbor cleanup really only finished in 2000,” said Julie Wormser, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association. “The harbor has had an incredible renaissance. It is exciting.”

Wormser cited the newish, large holding tank under Day Boulevard in South Boston, which allows storm-water runoff that the Deer Island sewage treatment plant can’t handle to be temporarily stored so sewage doesn’t back up in Boston’s basements. She points out that the naval base that closed in the 1970s is now home to many Charlestown residents and such institutions as Mass General and Spaulding Rehab. The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area has given us destinations within the harbor. Waterfront development and the Harbor Walk construction that has accompanied it has given Bostonians appealing restaurants and walking paths where we can all enjoy the harbor.

She is concerned but also hopeful that the mayor is leading a successful effort to address rising sea levels due to climate change and that saltwater won’t invade nearby roadway tunnels and subways. Her organization has had much influence in harbor improvements.

I was puzzled, however. Residential buildings are rising in the Seaport District to take in the harbor views. A museum and restaurants in new buildings line the harbor’s edge. The Harbor Walk is extended every time a new development comes on line.

But when I looked at the activity in the seaport itself, I saw little. It wasn’t just the lack of fishing boats, which I wrote about last week. It was winter, of course. In summer the water is filled with, private fishing charters, sail boats, water taxis, excursion boats.

But it is Boston’s seaport. Where are the ships that one would expect to see in a port? Where is the activity that the residents of those new, flashy flats will want to see?

No one would claim that Boston’s maritime activity rivals Long Beach’s or Newark’s.

Apparently, though, it isn’t as bad as it used to be or that I imagined. Cruise ship calls are increasing gradually, according to Matthew Brelis, director of media relations for Massport, which has been in charge of Boston’s ports since 1956. In 2015, 29 different ships made 114 calls at the Black Falcon terminal bringing in 328,305 passengers. During the 2016 season, officials expect to greet 33 different ships calling 119 times with about 330,000 passengers.

Cargo has grown a bit faster. Container shipping rose four percent in 2013 over 2012. It grew by 10 percent in 2014 and by 11 percent in 2015, according to Massport’s web site.

Automobiles and natural gas ships come into the harbor on a regular basis. Dredging should begin in 2017, Brelis hopes. Since the Army Corps of Engineers, not Massport, does the work, he can’t predict exactly. A deeper channel will allow post Panamax ships, the larger ships that will be accommodated this year in the expanded Panama Canal, to enter the harbor.

The seaport in 2012 generated $4.5 billion in revenues and supported 50,000 jobs, said Brelis. Seven thousand of those jobs are directly connected to seaport activities, and many of those are blue-collar with good wages.

The seaport also hosts commuters. Ferries from Hingham carry 5,000 people a day in winter and 1,000 commuters between Charlestown and Long Wharf, said Alison Nolan, principal and general manager of the 90-year-old Boston Harbor Cruises, her family’s business. Four heated and enclosed water taxis accommodate a few hundred people daily. Nolan expects to add more ferry routes between East Boston, the Seaport District and the Financial District as those neighborhoods’ density and development grow. One problem, says Nolan, is that the ferries do not necessarily connect with mass transit, so ferry commuters usually work close to the docks.

But winter is challenging for expanding ferry and water taxi service, she said. Sea conditions outside the inner harbor require more specialized vessels and that drives up costs.

Massachusetts exports a good deal of medical equipment and products, but remarkably, just like in the 17th century, we are still exporting hides and furs, said Brelis.

The Massachusetts economy is good right now. That means harbor activity is unlikely to slow and could continue its slow growth. One thing for sure: those who are moving to the Seaport District will have a front-row seat in observing what happens.

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