'Resiliency' plans a sticking point in Port Norfolk build-out

A rendering shows the proposed Neponset Wharf development. RODE Architects

This story was originally published on wbur.org

New housing, marina proposal have been on hold as city ramps up 'climate-ready' effort

To the untrained ear, it sounds like a grand slam for Dorchester: Revitalize a ramshackle waterfront lot and open public access to the water, build 85 units of desperately needed housing, boost tax revenue, and do it in a way that defends a section of the coastline from rising seas.

But to some longtime residents of Dorchester's Port Norfolk neighborhood, all they see is more traffic, the arrival of five- and six-story buildings and, on top of it all, the absence of a plan to protect the entire neighborhood from flooding.

The Port Norfolk peninsula is a hybrid of Boston and Cape Cod: a waterfront neighborhood with an old nail factory next to a marina. The streets are lined with humble abodes and the neighbors know each other’s names.

Ben Tankle is a 90-year-old World War II vet who lives in Port Norfolk. When he first arrived, Tankle said, crime was rampant and the residents were derided as “port rats.”

Today, he considers his neighborhood among the safest places in the city.

“It’s the community... away from all the helter-skelter,” he said. “And the houses are all about the same, kept in very good condition, and almost every one of them... once you pass away it’s never sold; it’s always in the family. What a way to grow up. I want to live here like we did in the West End.”

The West End of Boston is where Tankle was born and raised. Once a dense and bustling Italian and Jewish enclave, it was bulldozed in the 1950s to clear the way for the development you see today around Massachusetts General Hospital.

To many, the razing of the West End remains the epitome of “urban renewal” gone wrong. Tankle points out that the same agency that led the redevelopment of the West End — the Boston Redevelopment Authority, now called the Boston Planning and Development Agency — is overseeing a big new construction project proposed for Port Norfolk. And he hears echoes from the neighborhood he lost.

“The BRA knew what they were doing,” Tankle said. “We didn’t. And it was too late. And that’s what gets me peeved. … You can change the name of a skunk. But once you smell it, that’s a skunk no matter what you call it.”

Tankle is raising the parallel because of the prospect of Neponset Wharf, a new development at the end of the peninsula, which if approved would increase the number of housing units in Port Norfolk by 65 percent. Neighbors’ concerns range from traffic to gentrification, but it’s the sticking point of climate resilience that illustrates the difficulties that could lie ahead for communities trying to leverage private investment to fortify the waterfront.

Times have changed since the 1950s, and in many ways the urban renewal agenda that doomed Tankle’s West End has been substituted with a new urbanism agenda of density, walkability, and historical preservation. Climate resilience is a top priority, and even as the city pursues further zoning restrictions for vulnerable areas, developers are expected to build according to the expected rise in sea levels.

Neponset Wharf envisions three residential buildings five and six stories tall, as well as a boathouse, for a total of 185,000 square feet on a lot that's fenced off and looks abandoned from the outside.

Kevin Deabler of RODE Architects, which designed the complex, says the project would bring clear environmental benefits to its seven-acre lot.
“It’s about stabilizing the water’s edge,” he said. “There’s a portion of our shoreline which is going to be made back into the soft marsh landscape … portions of the seawall will come down and create areas for water to eddy in... so that it slows down in its path.”

That description is familiar to anyone building on Boston’s waterfront these days. The plan for Neponset Wharf is to make nearly all of the surfaces permeable to water (Deabler said almost the entire site is impermeable now), add a “tidal garden” to dampen wave activity, and comply with state and federal guidelines for building in flood zones.

But the neighbors opposing the project argue the resilience measures will only protect the project site, not the neighborhood behind it, and they’re calling on the city to not issue permits until more is known about the climate threat.

“Absolutely,” said Maria Lyons, a Port Norfolk resident since 1981 and environment chair of the Port Norfolk Civic Association.

“It’s one thing if somebody wanted to build a single family or two-family or whatnot. But when you’re talking about multiple developments, that’s a problem.”

Last summer, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh personally intervened on planning for Port Norfolk, asking the developer City Point Capital to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan more amenable to the neighbors.

Wait for ‘Climate Ready Dorchester’?

While Neponset Wharf remains in a holding pattern, much of Boston’s waterfront has been studied in granular detail through the city-led Climate Ready Boston program, with a series of adaptation plans already released in neighborhoods including East Boston and Charlestown.

Next comes the final waterfront neighborhood, Climate Ready Dorchester, which is expected to be launched in the fall. Analysts will be charged with locating flooding flash points and delivering proposals to keep the waterfront dry.

Lyons says everyone should wait until that information is available before making any big decisions about developing in a flood zone.

“To me that’s the ultimate question: how can you approve anything until they come and really do a study? Are they going to be able to help us?... What’s going to be the future for this area?”

But Deabler replies that even though the Dorchester study is yet to come, the larger Climate Ready Boston initiative has been in the works for three years, and the Neponset Wharf proposal is being tailored to square with the city’s adaptation agenda.

“We want to make sure that whatever is being proposed is not just our idea,” he said, “but is something that we... dovetail into the greater planning process... for Dorchester, for Port Norfolk.”

City officials say there’s no reason the development wouldn’t fit into a more comprehensive plan to protect Port Norfolk. But that plan doesn’t exist yet, and officials say they can’t hold a developer to a plan that hasn’t even launched.

“It has to be resilient by our regulations,” said Tim Czerwienski, himself a Port Norfolk resident who is overseeing the Neponset Wharf proposal at the BPDA. “And quite frankly, just by the business of development, it doesn’t make sense to develop a property that’s going to be underwater. So it’s in their interests for their site to be resilient.”

In order to defend an area from the ocean, neighbors, landowners, and government agencies have to arrive at some level of consensus. But what’s happening in Port Norfolk could be a case study in the difficulty of satisfying stakeholders with opposing views. Even in some of the more vulnerable areas, other concerns seem to trump the threat of climate change.

A recent poll by the Conservation Law Foundation found that nearly twice as many Bostonians cited overdevelopment above climate change as the greatest threat to the waterfront.

Concerns over density and traffic are guaranteed to draw broadsides of NIMBYism (“not-in-my-back yard”), but Jesse Keenan, a resilience expert at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, says opposition from NIMBYs can democratize the development process.

“One way to think of [NIMBYism] is as a barrier, but it may actually be a productive barrier in the sense that it forces the real politics of the planning and execution of these investments to really give consideration to local communities.”

But Keenan says neighbors often favor the status quo — and that can tack toward the opposite of resilience.

“They may be making decisions that are in the interest of the present… but are they really thinking about the long term? Or are they thinking about their short-term housing values?” Keenan asked. “And I think that’s a conflict that is difficult for public sector entities and agencies to navigate.”

Some neighbors are backing the proposed development on Port Norfolk, saying it would increase property values and open up access to the water. “It brings up the neighborhood,” said John Ryan, who lives up the street from the Neponset Wharf site and says he supports it as long as they mitigate traffic.

Now, he said, “it’s just a desert. It’s just a boatyard doing nothing.”

The developers behind the Neponset Wharf project, City Point Capital, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the man who sold them the land did.

“This would be a first class hidden jewel in Port Norfolk,” said local landowner and entrepreneur Ralph Bruno. “I got more to lose than anybody else if I don’t put a good project here,” he said while sitting on the deck of his restaurant and banquet hall, Venezia, which sits adjacent to the lot in question.

Bruno considered developing the lot himself before deciding to sell to City Point, whose vision he said squares with his own.

“That’s why I tied up the property,” he said. “I’ve been here almost 38 years now and I want to make sure it’s a good property everybody’s going to be proud of.”

Bruno doesn’t think developers can wait until the city’s climate assessment is released.  The property is too valuable to go undeveloped, he said, and it won’t be the first time the neighborhood has changed.

“When I first came here in 1985, (34 years would be 1981) people said. ‘Oh my God, you’re gonna get killed by the neighbors.’”
But Bruno said if you come up with a plan that makes sense, the neighbors will eventually come around.

“You know you’re going to have a tough time at the beginning, but people are going to realize, ‘Hey, this is good for us.’”

Bruno is skeptical of climate doomsday scenarios, but he knows the ocean is encroaching. And once it’s clear what needs to be done, he said he’ll protect his own property, hopefully in coordination with the 85-unit development proposed for the lot next door.

But if the neighbors of Port Norfolk can’t come to an understanding with the developers, the Neponset Wharf project will face a difficult path to getting the city to sign off -- no matter what kind of adaptation measures are on the table.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage by which the Neponset Wharf project would increase the number of housing units on Port Norfolk. Civic leaders estimate there are now 280 units, while city planners say there are 333, meaning the 85-unit proposal would increase the total units by roughly 28%.

Update: Due to incorrect information provided to WBUR, an earlier version of this story listed different dimensions for the proposed development.

Support for this essay was provided by the Weather Eye Award, an award given to distinguished local reporters by RiseLocal, a project of New America’s National Network. The story was also done in collaboration with the Dorchester Reporter.