Downtown View:Following Up on the HarborWalk Walk

July 18, 2017
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By Karen Cord Taylor

A few weeks ago seven friends and I explored the HarborWalk from Lovejoy Wharf to Congress Street.

We were dismayed by the blind alleys, signs pointing in the wrong direction or no signs, parking lots and the sad condition of parts of the walk.

Now I’ve investigated what’s being done. The prognosis is mixed, but Boston Harbor Now’s plans over time could make a difference.

Before delving into the fixes, I must apologize to the condominium owners at Union Wharf, which was developed into housing before the walk was created in 1984. They pointed out that they had paid attention to the HarborWalk more attentively than other older wharves, and they are right. I’m sorry to have defamed them when they didn’t deserve it.

As to the fixes, one difficulty is that dozens of different public and private owners are responsible for the HarborWalk along its length. A Friends of the HarborWalk does exist. It comprises eight to ten volunteers who host free walking tours, organize cleanup days and install “wayfinding” signs, said the group’s president, Mike Manning, in an email.

But the sign focus has been in East Boston, which is undergoing a waterfront resurgence. Manning invited us to go on a tour with his folks, and I’m sure he would welcome others also. Find their information on www.BostonHarborNow.org.

As to the condition of the HarborWalk abutting the soon-to-be Eliot Upper School at 585 Commercial Street and Langone Park in the North End, it’s mixed.

Construction, to be completed in 2019, has begun on the school, said Boston Public Schools Communications Director Richard Weir. But the HarborWalk behind the school is owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, a notoriously underfunded agency.

At nearby Langone Park, however, there are plans. “Later in this fiscal year we plan to start a community design process for upcoming renovations to Langone/Popuolo Park, with construction starting the following fiscal year,” wrote Ryan Woods, Director of External Affairs at Boston Parks and Recreation. “In the meantime we will look into patching up the HarborWalk area so it is a safe place for residents and visitors to enjoy.”

Boston Harbor Now has the best news yet, although it is a long-term project that won’t spark immediate changes. Boston Harbor Now is a newish organization formed by combining the Boston Harbor Island Alliance and the Boston Harbor Association.

This non-profit’s mission is broad. In partnership with public agencies, communities, and private and non-profit entities, it aims to “re-establish Boston as one of the world’s truly great coastal cities.” That pretty much covers the waterfront (sorry).

Jill Valdes Horwood, BHN’s director of policy, said they are aware of the problems.

The most effective solutions to a continuous, navigable public walkway can be implemented through private developers with cash on hand and big new plans. Through negotiations under the 1866 Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 91, which “seeks to preserve and protect the rights of the public, and to guarantee that private uses of tidelands and waterways serve a proper public purpose,” the Department of Environmental Protection requires those entities that seek to develop waterfront property to create such public accommodations as walkways, restrooms, benches, grassy areas, even fishing docks. One of these is in the Seaport District at Pier Four, outfitted with a fish cleaning station and a machine that disgorges bait.

Chapter 91 was haphazardly enforced until the 1980s and early 1990s when the law was tightened as Boston began the harbor cleanup, saw its traditional industrial waterfront uses decline, and welcomed re-use of the old waterfront buildings. At the same time, it realized the public could be cut off again from the harbor, this time not by fisheries and shipping but by private residences, offices and hotels.

As development quickened, the underfunded Massachusetts DEP—isn’t every state agency these days—challenged by a small staff, negotiated with these new entities one at a time, stored the documents and after time passed, who remembers what’s in them? Thus, when a private hotel or residence closes off a portion of the HarborWalk, as critics say they do, is it legal? They might have the right to apply for a private event. Is the hotel forgetting what they can do? Do they not know or care?

Horwood said BHN has a solution that was begun this summer. It involves a website and is time-consuming to execute but thoroughly needed. This website would partly be a map identifying the walk and its amenities, hazards and incomplete sections, since most walkers have no idea what lies ahead and entities in charge of these sections may have no sense of how they are failing.

It would also collect all the licenses DEP has issued over the years into a searchable database so that both owners and neighbors could find out if closing a portion of the walkway at 4 p.m. is legitimate or not.

“The waterfront is for everyone,” said Horwood. “The state holds these lands in trust, and when someone buys a waterfront parcel it comes with strings attached for public access first, then for private development.”

Meanwhile, can we please work on the signs?

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