New resiliency districts for vulnerable Boston neighborhoods could pay for multi-billion-dollar flood-repelling projects, ranging from new seawalls and living shorelines to earthen berms and elevation of the Boston Harborwalk. Image courtesy of Climate Ready Boston

Protecting Boston’s vulnerable real estate from flood damage in coming decades could require creation of new districts to collect payments from property owners, and a new cabinet-level resiliency czar and department at city hall to oversee the defense strategy. 

The Boston Green Ribbon Commission lays out a potential road map for resiliency starting in Seaport District and South Boston. Projects such as new seawalls and protective berms could cost up to $1 billion and protect the city’s recent development epicenter from a projected 40-inch rise in sea levels by 2070. 

“The most important thing we heard is everybody would like to be part of a collective solution, and they’d like to see good coordination, so everybody knows what’s expected,” said Bud Ris, senior adviser to the Green Ribbon Commission. 

Citywide resiliency costs could approach $4 billion including other vulnerable neighborhoods such as Charlestown, Chinatown, the downtown waterfront, Dorchester and East Boston. That’s about half the projected dollar value of anticipated property damage without shoreline defenses, according to the 2018 Climate Ready Boston report. 

Flooding in the Seaport District will become common at monthly high tides in the next three decades and form a pathway threatening hundreds of homes in South End as well according to the Green Ribbon Commission report, which was developed with consultants Arcadis. 

The panel envisions the South Boston and Seaport areas as a test case for a citywide strategy that spreads costs equitably among property owners, with help from public sources. 

Among the options: creation by 2023 of a District for Resiliency Improvements (DRI), which would have the power to borrow for resiliency projects, and could serve as a model for a citywide DRI, or separate DRI’s in different neighborhoods. 

The commission’s final report does not specify the breakdown of public versus private contributions, but mentions one scenario in which 98 percent of private property owners would pay less than 50 cents per square foot of building area additionally per year. Payment mechanisms could include special assessments, fees, property transfer taxes and risk-adjusted premiums. 

“This is a new issue almost everywhere,” Ris said. “There aren’t a lot of great case studies you can draw on, and there’s no silver bullet in terms of financing. But the one thing that we recommended to the city is that they might want to get clear about public versus private contributions.” 

Focus on Fort Point 

Planning is already under way to build a 6-foot-tall earthen berm and elevate the Boston Harborwalk as a stopgap strategy to limit damage to a group of parcels on the east side of Fort Point Channel, where developers are proposing large-scale projects. 

Related Beal submitted plans in July for a 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use development at 244-284 A St., while National Development and Alexandria Real Estate Equities are seeking approval for a 316,000-square-foot office-lab building at 5 Necco St. 

More large-scale development could be in the works for a 2.5-acre portion of the neighboring Gillette Corp. property. The razor manufacturer said in August it’s seeking a broker to sell the parking lots off Binford and A streets, while it continues a space planning study for the rest of its campus. 

The three property owners would contribute toward the cost of the estimated $20 million berm, according to the BPDA, which is seeking federal FEMA grants to offset the cost. 

But the long-term strategy for projects built beyond 2025 calls for a coordinated neighborhood-wide defense rather than site-by-site projects. 

“Coastal properties must ‘link arms’ to provide a single line of defense against coastal flood waters,” the report states. 

Previous studies identified an urgent need to elevate seawalls and floodproof buildings on Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue, at an estimated cost of up to $42 million. Massport, which owns several major properties in the area including the Commonwealth Pier leased to Fidelity Investments, would contribute to the public funding share subject to future discussions, the report says. 

COVID Delays Process 

Which areas are included in the new districts would be determined by a new flood resiliency zoning overlay, which is being drawn up by the city’s Environment Department and consultants Utile Inc. 

Steve Adams

The findings are under internal review, but a public comment process has been delayed because of suspended public meetings during COVID-19, and no additional meetings have been scheduled at this time, BPDA spokeswoman Molly McGlynn said. 

Deanna Moran, director of environmental planning for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, said the Green Ribbon identified some new concrete steps including the need to enact new design and performance standards, along with potential funding models. 

“I was thrilled to see them acknowledge the role that private property owners need to play,” Moran said. “I still think these conversations are lacking urgency at least at the level that is needed.” 

DRI Strategy Could Defend Boston Waterfront

by Steve Adams time to read: 3 min