When it comes to the latest politically charged battle over development on Boston’s waterfront, as the immortal Yogi Berra once said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

As the Conservation Law Foundation gears up to do battle over Don Chiofaro’s long-delayed harbor tower, it’s hard not to get the feeling we’ve been here and done that because, well, we have. CLF’s threats to sink Chiofaro’s plans for a 600-foot-tall waterfront tower come straight out of the playbook the environmental group used two decades ago in another epic development battle. Back then, CLF used threats of legal action and constant media grandstanding to effectively stall the multibillion-dollar Fan Pier project for years, causing the Chicago billionaire Nick Pritzker to eventually sell the site and its plans.

As is the case today, CLF’s intervention came as the proposal for a mini Seaport neighborhood was close to clearing its final city and state regulatory hurdles, having already been subject to years of debate.

And it’s hard to see how the final version of Fan Pier, which eventually got built by another developer after years of further stumbles and drama, benefited all that much from CLF’s intense interest. A few feet of extra green space got added here and there but nothing like the expanse of waterfront parkland the group and its supporters were pushing, a veritable free-range Serengeti on the Seaport.

Fan Pier Park has all the excitement and aesthetic appeal of a flat, treeless lawn in front of a 1950s ranch – you really have to hunt for it on the development’s website. There’s a link to a page about the park but it has been taken down.

But the debacle did help CLF flex its muscles and make it a player to be reckoned with on waterfront development.

And maybe that’s what environmental group and its combative chief, Bradley Campbell, is truly seeking – that is, after you clear away all the happy talk about ensuring public access to a sliver of the waterfront currently covered with one of the ugliest parking garages Boston has ever seen.

Whatever the motive, we are off to the races again, with CLF threatening to sue to stop a waterfront development plan drawn up by Boston officials that would pave the way for Chiofaro’s 900,000-square-foot complex as well as a 305-foot tower on the Hook Lobster site.

Scott Van Voorhis

Scott Van Voorhis

A Long Road to the Waterfront

For Chiofaro, the developer of International Place, it has already been a long haul. The bull-like builder, who proudly recounts his days playing football at Harvard and who once was likened to Boston’s answer to Donald Trump (before Trump became a national disgrace) has been battling for years to push his project through the city development bureaucracy.

Boston’s late Mayor Thomas M. Menino all but blacklisted the developer after clashing with him personally. But Chiofaro has been able to build a working relationship with Mayor Marty Walsh and, after years of more negotiations, finally appears to be rounding third.

But like Nick Pritzker before him, Chiofaro now faces the threat of protracted legal battling with CLF as he races to get his project into construction before the next downturn. CLF doesn’t have to prevail to win – it can simply kill Chiofaro’s project with delay after delay, letting the next recession, which we all know is coming at some point, finish it off.

What does CLF say it wants? Chiofaro has already pledged significant public amenities, including $10 million for a “Blue Walk” park next to the New England Aquarium and $30 million for any lost revenue.

But CLF says Chiofaro and other developers should be ponying up more in order to be able to build towers along the waterfront.

More to the point, CLF has bemoaned what it sees as a “wall of skyscrapers” taking shape along the waterfront. It’s similar to the argument the group pushed during its battle royal over Fan Pier two decades ago, constantly pushing for cuts to the heights of the relatively modest towers proposed there, some not even 20 stories.

And just like it did during Fan Pier, the group likes to point out that heights along the harbor currently top out at 145 feet – a number that is completely unrealistic for developers looking to invest hundreds of millions in expensive and risky construction on valuable waterfront land.

New waterfront development should take as its cue the heights of old warehouses built generations ago, not the tremendous development potential of these sites today, CLF’s senior counsel told The Globe.

Given CLF’s dogged opposition, you’d think the group was battling to prevent a rapacious Chiofaro from leveling some pristine harborside ecosystem to make way for his greedy tower plans. But what currently stands in the way of Chiofaro’s tower plans has got to be the ugliest building still standing in Boston today, a drab concrete parking garage with all of the appeal of a burned out Berlin bunker.

I am not sure how it’s contributing to making Boston’s waterfront a vibrant destination, but maybe CLF knows something we don’t. If the group succeeds in foiling Chiofaro’s tower plans, the wretched aquarium parking garage will surely be with us for years more.

Then again, for CLF, it’s a case of been there, done that.

Back in the early 2000s, CLF managed to squeeze out a few more years of life for the unsightly surface parking lots that once covered Fan Pier when it managed to bring progress on that project to a halt.

It’s hard to see any positive legacy from CLF’s strenuous efforts to thwart Fan Pier.

The best way to bring Boston’s waterfront to life is to build vibrant new projects along it, not battle to keep the status quo and the grimy Aquarium garage that symbolizes it.

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.

‘Déjà Vu All Over Again’ as CLF Challenges Chiofaro

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min