A rendering of a flooded Fenway Park.

Credit: Courtesy Environmental League of Massachusetts

Boston Juggles Waterfront Development With Climate-Change Prep

January 27, 2014

Ever since Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, coastal cities around the world have grappled with how to brace for another catastrophic storm. In New York, there’s talk of pulling back from the ocean. But thus far, Boston is taking a different approach.

If a Hurricane Sandy-style storm hits Boston at high tide, the outcome would be devastating. Huge swaths of the city could find themselves underwater, from the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the Back Bay to Fenway Park.  It’s an ominous scenario. But Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of environment and energy, said it’s not a hopeless one.

“We can build better buildings that are more resilient, both by elevating critical infrastructure, by how we design them, by making them more flood prepared,” Swett said.

Swett argued that Boston needs to embrace “resiliency” — in other words, to make sure the city’s buildings can survive a disastrous flood.

“We missed a 100-year event from Sandy by five hours. We missed a hundred year event from Nemo by three hours,” Swett notes. “We would have had water through Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

The best response, he added, is to design new structures that can take a beating from the climate—while retrofitting old buildings to keep them safe as well.

“We’re going to turn over and rehab our buildings significantly between now and 2050,” Swett said. “If you’re replacing your boiler plant and your central heating facility, is it in the right location? If you’ve put it in the basement, is it possible to move it to a different floor?

What Boston cant do, Swett insisted, is turn its back on the water.

“One of the things we’re not thinking about,” he said bluntly, “is moving the city backwards, right? We’re a city on water…. That’s where folks want to be.”

Case in point: the South Boston waterfront, which blossomed under former Mayor Tom Menino and continues to boom under new Mayor Marty Walsh. But according to Vivien Li of the Boston Harbor Association, some developers there still aren’t taking the risks from climate change seriously enough.

“We had a situation at the Conservation Commission meeting in December where a very prominent waterfront developer came with a proposal for a building that had three levels of parking underground,” Li recalled. “And when we said, what are you going to do for climate change, he said, “Well, we have sandbags ready.”

If attitudes have been slow to shift, the city may be partially responsible. While Boston forces developers to show they’re taking the threats from climate change into account, that requirement was only implemented in November 2013, years into the waterfront-building boom sparked by the completion of the Big Dig.

Still, some developers are embracing resiliency.  The new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown’s Navy Yard is built right on the water, and would be hammered by a serious storm. The good news is, it’s designed accordingly.

David Burson of Partners HealthCare designed Spaulding’s new building. During a recent tour, he pointed out feature after feature that’s aimed at mitigating the effects of severe weather. For example, key parts of Spaulding’s physical plant are on or near the roof, including crucial electrical switches and emergency generators. Even the windows—which, unlike most hospital windows, can be opened from inside by employees—are designed with previous catastrophes in mind.

“When they ended up doing at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans is breaking the windows to allow the patients to breathe,” Burson said. “If there is an emergency situation, you can open this window, get fresh air. You can keep [the patients] here for days or weeks at a time, keep them safe.

Right now, Spaulding’s forward-looking design is the exception. But it may become the norm. Because Boston is determined to remain a seaport city—for better or worse.

View the discussion on Greater Boston with George Bachrach is the president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and Vivien Li is the president of the Boston Harbor Association.

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