Tag Archives: Boston Harbor

Following up on the HarborWalk walk

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?

HarborWalk—signs needed

Last Thursday, I took a walk along the harbor with four friends from downtown Boston and others from Iowa, Kentucky and Washington, DC, to assess how the 33-year-old HarborWalk is doing.
Time constraints confined us to the stretch between Lovejoy Wharf and the Fort Point Channel post office. I’ll take a walk at other locations later.
The post office is not officially on the Harbor Walk, but it’s a gem. Its spruced-up look has vents like ocean liner stacks. But never mind. We were assessing the walk, not the buildings.
Our verdict? Parts of the walk are dazzling. All of these were built and are maintained by private developments. Presumably their high rents or condominium prices pay for the upkeep.
The city’s properties and such older developments as Union Wharf, however, built and rehabbed before the walk was established, degrade it with lack of access, blind alleys, unsightly parking lots and poor conditions.
In some parts no one would realize the HarborWalk exists since it looks like a driveway. Few signs point to its location. Signs in general are poorly placed and often wrong. We decided the Harborwalk needs a Friends group to get the powers that be to pay attention.
Let’s begin with the fabulous. On a path next to Bobby Orr’s statue park we headed toward Lovejoy Wharf. There we found a passageway through the new building. Wow! That passageway enshrines a splendid view of the Bunker Hill Monument.
Like other parts of the walk constructed since the late 1980s by private developers, this walkway was wide and landscaped beautifully. Its view incorporated the locks, the police station, bridges and the Cambridge and Charlestown shores on the other side. We gave it an A-plus.
Other welcoming spots were along the Boston Harbor and Intercontinental Hotels. Atlantic Wharf had a grassy lawn filled with happy people eating and sunbathing. Also beautiful was Battery Wharf, but no signs let you know the public is invited. Boston Planning and Development Agency: Require Battery Wharf to put up signs inviting people to the public walkway.
On the other side of the Washington Street Bridge from Lovejoy was a stretch that led along the North End. We gave it a D. Crumbling asphalt abutted granite walls that were askew. The walk by the playground, tennis courts, ball fields, the Mirabella Pool and the Coast Guard facility was disappointing and mostly streetside. This waterfront space is wonderful—expansive and welcoming. But again, signs were non-existent and one was completely wrong. Surely that park could be redesigned to incorporate a repaired HarborWalk.
We deplored all the parking lots we had to navigate, sometimes unsuccessfully. The area behind the Aquarium, along the Harbor Garage, Harbor Towers and Independence Wharf were regrettable, forgettable or hunkered down against the public. We wanted pleasant seaside establishments where we could sit down and have a nice, cool drink. We wanted places where people wanted to be.
We were actually warned at one point. “You know this is private property,” said a woman passing into the townhouse section at Union Wharf, while we were standing trying to find a directional sign. I guess the owners there don’t like the public walking by their houses, as the public does past mine—without incident, by the way.
On the other hand, along one wharf, and I can’t remember, maybe Commercial or Sargent’s, the HarborWalk looked like an scruffy driveway, but beside the doorways were gas grilles and charming flower pots—signs that its residents know how to live in a public city. Surely there are carrots and sticks available to reclaim some of the harbor’s private spaces for the public—and get rid of the parking lots.
We loved Christopher Columbus Park. And we were happy to see Tia’s, the kind of outdoor restaurant there needs to be along the waterfront to attract visitors. The boats along the wharves were a treat, as was the harbor itself.
By the time we got to Long Wharf we were tired. (My phone said 12,000 steps by the end.) No one liked Long Wharf, which my coterie did not know has been the subject of lawsuits between some residents and the BPDA over installing a restaurant or something active there. It seemed uninviting and sparsely populated. It is not near residences and most wanted a restaurant. “With dancing on the wharf every Friday night,” said one. My companions suggested a farmer’s market or seafood market would be another good use, but saw it as dead now.
The HarborWalk’s barriers, poor condition, parking lots and general difficulty finding one’s way made it hard to convince the out-of-towners to stay with us. They preferred to get back to the events at the Copley Plaza hotel where their organization was holding its national annual meeting.
We Bostonians found that a problem. Tourism is a big industry in Boston. If the HarborWalk is unpleasant and hard to navigate, it’s not helping the city. While we loved the space behind the Intercontinental, we wanted tourists to appreciate Boston’s older parts also.
Right now the HarborWalk is falling down on that job.

Doing nothing at sea

When Hampshire House owner Tom Kershaw invited me to join him on the square-rigged, 122-foot schooner Lynx, based in Nantucket and St. Petersburg, Florida, at Saturday’s Parade of Sail, I immediately said yes. Journalists often get to do something special—once I walked the entire Big Dig tunnel while it was under construction, and I’m still jealous of my colleague who explored the part of Hanover Street still extant under City Hall Plaza.

Tom was able to invite about 40 guests to join him in the parade because he has been a long-time board member of Sail Boston. He has a special relationship with the Lynx, built in 2001 based on a privateer of the same name that participated in the War of 1812. His charity, Cheers for Children, has supported the Lynx’s sailing instruction and history programs, but are really providing kids a potentially life-changing experience. Three members of the Peacock family, who run the programs, were on board. Donald Peacock said sailors in his family go back to the early 1800s.

We arrived at the ship about 6 a.m. It was a good thing we got there early. Fan Pier no longer looks like the old Fan Pier, and without Anthony’s, Pier Four no longer looks like Pier Four. But we found the ship, climbed aboard and enjoyed a leisurely day, starting with coffee as we watched the crew ready the ship for a sail.

Most of the guests were long-time friends of Tom. A television crew led by meteorologist Cindy Fitzgibbon of Channel Five set up their equipment to broadcast all day, but no beauty shots were to be had.

The water was glassy, but fog enclosed the ship so tightly that we could only hear the airplanes taking off above our heads. We never did see them. About 8 a.m. the ship left the dock and joined a line headed for the outer harbor. When we passed the large Navy ship anchored near the Reserved Channel, a crew member stuffed the small cannon with a ball of explosives and bread—why the bread I never understood—and fired it at the Navy ship. It was a salute, but it also could have been a hostile act. The Navy, thankfully, did not return fire.

During most of our journey we could barely see the ship ahead of us or the one behind. A fine mist pelted our faces. Tom’s friend Lindy distributed thin plastic rain ponchos adorned with the Cheers logo.

The sea became rambunctious, making it difficult to maintain footing unless you were holding on. But the fog lifted somewhat, and the sea took on that glassy look again. The crew raised the sails, with one female crew member climbing to the top of the mast to do some adjusting and all the others heaving and hauling the lines to secure the unfurled sails in their rightful places.

We were sitting on wet wood, but it was not cold. The sea was not emitting that wonderful briney, fishy, kelpy fragrance that northern seas can achieve. Police boats flew through the water, slapping the waves as they bounced. There were few bird sounds, few clanks on what was mostly a wooden ship, and a low drone of motors. The major noise continued to be that of airplanes landing and taking off.

At one point, a Boston Whaler, the Annie Laurie, roared up to our ship. We paid no attention until a police boat roared even faster and megaphoned the Annie Laurie to get away from the Lynx. Oh. Security.

Land came into view as the fog lifted more, and we saw we were lingering, waiting for the delayed parade to begin, with all the other ships spread out between Nahant and south of Boston Light.

Gradually most of the ships began to raise their sails. About 10:30 a.m. our ship’s guests started to delve into big coolers, bringing out sandwiches and hummus dip. Soon we heard the parade had begun. We hung around for an hour or so though because we were in the ninth flotilla. Our lead ship would be the three-masted Gulden Leeuw, or Golden Lion when translated from the Dutch. We would sail in tandem with the smaller Ardelle.

The sail into the inner harbor, the turn-around and the return to our dock were accompanied by a few more cannon firings and the remarkable sight of sailors in uniform standing on the yards of the barque Guayas.
We docked and shed our sea legs as we walked into the crowds along the Harbor Walk, all the while thinking of the talk we’d heard on board.

This spectacle is expensive. Ships pay for crews, food, gasoline and all else that enables them to sail across oceans. Such groups as Sail Boston give ships “honorariums” so they can afford to participate.

It was reported, unverified, that Mayor Walsh has said this is the last time Boston will put on this extravaganza. The security costs are too high. Given the many police officers we encountered on land and the many police boats on patrol, we could see why this would worry a mayor who has housing to build and schools to support.

So maybe you should get yourself down to the harbor to enjoy a free boarding of these ships. It isn’t certain that they’re coming back.

The seaport. Is anyone there?

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.




Big Pharma? Try Big Fish.

Last week the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center hosted Seafood Expo, a showcase of more than 1,200 fishing boat owners, seafood packagers and processors, fish farmers and suppliers to the fish industry. I went over to take a look.

I became interested in fish when I visited the Seaport District. Everyone knows about the new buildings and fast-moving construction sites in that location.

I knew less about the actual seaport. Some say Boston has the cleanest harbor in the world. We can swim in it and eat the fish we catch in it. So where are the fishing boats? At any time of day, I saw at most two boats tied up at the Boston Fish Pier.

I hoped the Seafood Expo would give me insight into the state of fishing in Boston. It did. The seafood industry is global. It involves airplanes and remote processors. New England struggles to keep up. The industry is so complicated there are many places where things can go wrong.

Expo exhibitors came from Norway, Iceland, Ecuador, Fiji, Vietnam, China, Chile, Indonesia, Turkey, Scotland, Japan and all over North America.

The vendors offered samples of their merchandise. Salmon dominated. Everything, though, was delicious. Several company representatives told me proudly of their success in providing “natural” seafood. One displayed a piece of tuna he said a competitor had infused with food coloring so it looked like the un-doctored “sushi-grade” tuna his company sold.

It was obvious from Expo that, unless chefs or supermarkets label their fish accurately, we have no idea where a piece of fish has come from. We also have no idea where it has been. Most of the fish I saw in the booths was frozen. In fact, most fish people buy, even if it is not in the freezer case, has been frozen.

This is not necessarily bad. Frozen fish handled properly can be nutritious and tasty. But the journey a piece of frozen fish has made could go like this: Unloaded from a boat at the Boston Fish Pier, a monkfish could be trucked to Logan Airport, put on a plane, flown to China, transferred to a processing plant where low-paid workers chop off its head and cut it into serving pieces, packed up again, hauled back to the airport, flown back to Logan, and trucked to a wholesaler, who sells it to a local restaurant or supermarket.

That’s the path of some fish labeled as “from New England waters.” The vendor who described this journey was proud of her company’s management of it, saying it was often cheaper to get fish ready for sale with two intercontinental plane rides than it was to keep the operation in Boston.

Some fish were labeled “organic.” Those were the farmed fish. Other popular words were “artisan,” “ultra-low temperature,” “sustainable,” “certifiable,” “traceable,” and “clean.”

These boasts were a reaction, I guess, to reports of dirty farming practices, false labeling of species and overfishing. Although many vendors claimed their products were traceable, one person told me the systems are rudimentary.

Boston still has a solid place in the industry, but now, as you see when you look around the fish pier, Seafood Way and Fid Kennedy Avenue, it is in processing and packaging rather than hauling in fish.

“Landings in most categories are down. Competition from imported fish is up,” said Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor, Save the Bay and a visiting scholar in public policy at Brown University’s Watson Institute.

He is pessimistic about the state of commercial fishing. “The general conclusion is that nothing is working,” he said.

A few fisheries are healthy. Boston still lands lobsters. Clams and monkfish are also plentiful. Striped bass has seen a successful resurgence, said Berman.

Matthew Brelis, director of media relations at Massport, is more upbeat than Berman about Boston and fish.

He pointed out that over the past decade the amount of seafood unloaded at the fish pier or the lobster terminal has grown. In 2004, 8.8 million pounds were unloaded. In 2014, the haul was 16.4 million pounds.

Meanwhile, a few companies are trying to change the way we who live next to the ocean get our fish. It is partly a return to old practices. But it depends on new technology.

Jared Auerbach, who started out fishing in Alaska and on the Cape, founded Red’s Best, which sells to wholesalers who want good, fresh, local fish. He also has a retail outlet at the Boston Public Market. His 20 refrigerated trucks meet local boats, mostly along the South Shore and the Cape. His staff sort the fish and track them with proprietary software from the dock through processing in the company’s facility at the fish pier and four other locations to the wholesalers who distribute to restaurants and retail outlets. They typically handle more than 100,000 pounds a day.

While there is no consistent supply of any one kind of fish, the hake, black sea bass, mackerel, skate, scup and other native species are all nutritious, tasty and fresh. Local cod is scarce so Auerbach suggests trying lesser-known varieties. “It’s screwy,” he said, “eating junk from other countries.”

Auerbach is proud that his company employs 80 local people, works with about 1,000 local fishing boats and has a smaller carbon footprint than companies depending on Logan Airport.

He rejects the global claims of “top of the catch” excellence. “Who buys the bottom of the catch?” he asks.