Boston Globe | Lewis Wharf is latest front in waterfront development fight

Boston Globe, September 21, 2015-- There’s a new front in the fight over development along Boston’s waterfront: Lewis Wharf. 

Developers have filed detailed plans with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to build a 277-room hotel on the little-used end of the wharf, which juts out from the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Commercial Street in the North End.

But they face fierce opposition from neighbors, who’ve packed public meetings, hired a high-powered public relations firm, and gathered about 700 signatures asking the BRA to scale back the hotel or kill it altogether.

It’s the latest of several skirmishes over big development in a part of town that, despite Boston’s building boom, has changed relatively little in recent years, with its marinas and 19th-century wharf warehouses-turned-condos jutting out over the harbor.

Now, like Don Chiofaro’s plan a few wharfs away to turn the Aquarium Garage into one of the city’s tallest buildings, the Lewis Wharf hotel plan has galvanized neighbors worried about traffic, crowding, and views of the harbor, for residents and visitors alike.

“We just feel like it’s out of context for the neighborhood,” said Jennifer Crampton, who lives across Atlantic Avenue from Lewis Wharf and is active in the group Save Our North End Waterfront. “It’s really a residential neighborhood. We want to keep it that way, rather than a congested commercial zone.”

Those fears are overblown, said Will Adams, partner at Boston-based JW Capital Partners, which wants to develop the site. Its plan would put a luxury hotel atop two newly repaired piers over the water, with a shorter building connecting them to preserve some views. The project would also turn a surface lot into a 1¼-acre park and extend the Harborwalk through a site that today has little public access.

“Our opponents say this is walling off the waterfront. It’s anything but,” Adams said. “It’s just a spectacular redevelopment of a piece of the waterfront that has not been built on for a long time.”

As real estate prices surge, more developers are looking to this stretch of the waterfront, which is popular with residents and tourists but has seen relatively little construction since many of the wharf buildings were redeveloped in the 1980s, said Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association. Engineering challenges and extensive state and local permitting requirements can make it a hard place to build, she said. But given demand to live on the water, the rewards can be huge.

“If you can get a development through, it’s a gold mine,” Li said. “There isn’t that much land left on the waterfront.”

Where there is room, big plans are afoot.

Chiofaro is trying to build a 600-foot tower on the site of the Aquarium Garage. The owners of Hook Lobster last fall floated plans for a 22-story building on their property at the foot of the Northern Avenue Bridge. And the Boston Redevelopment Authority is midway through a plan that would update zoning along the harbor, though the area it’s studying stops short of Lewis Wharf.

A few smaller projects are on the works, too.

Capital Properties, a New York company that owns several prominent Boston buildings, bought the Custom House Block and Gardiner Building on Long Wharf for $34 million in April. They plan no additions or big exterior changes to the Custom House Block, said development associate David Rattner, but are aiming for a full rehab of its 77,000-square-foot interior and hope to attract a high-end office user.

Back on Lewis Wharf, JW Capital is planning an entirely new structure, one it says will complement the 18th-century wharf building there now. It would be capped at 55 feet in height and would be smaller, Adams noted, than a 335-unit hotel that was approved for the site in the early 1990s but never built.

The project does have some fans in the neighborhood.

Tara Shea has lived in the North End for 18 years. She likes what the hotel would do with a place that’s now a rundown parking lot, opening access to the water and putting a restaurant and maybe retail out on the wharf. Still, she said, it’s a touchy subject.

“People are being guarded about their words. They don’t want to alienate their neighbors,” she said. “It’s sensitive.”

And many are clearly — and loudly — opposed.

Windows of the condos and offices now on Lewis Wharf are full of anticasino signs. Opponents peppered Mayor Martin J. Walsh with questions about the project at a North End fund-raiser last week. And residents have hired Northwind Strategies, the political consulting firm overseen by Doug Rubin, to coordinate their public relations campaign.

Crampton said the debate will only grow as the hotel moves through the BRA’s review process this fall.

“The community is speaking out against this project,” she said.

Li noted that it’s a sharp contrast from development in the South Boston Seaport or even East Boston. There, big plans sailed through with barely a fight, in part because there weren’t many immediate neighbors, and they weren’t particularly well organized. The North End is different, she said. There, neighbors are close by and already fed up with traffic. They’re also affluent and well-connected.

“They’re going to oppose these projects in a way that we’ve never seen along the waterfront,” Li said. “I think it’s going to be a long-term thing.”