The new Federal Courthouse near Fan Pier is already standing, but the full scope and shape of development in the South Boston Waterfront district has yet to emerge.

It is remarkable that for all the attention being focused on the redevelopment of the South Boston waterfront, there is really little understanding of what this dynamic urban landscape is going to be when it is completed. We know there is a new federal courthouse on the water along with new hotels and office buildings. Ground has been broken for the new convention center and there is even talk about building a new stadium for the Boston Red Sox there.

But what will all this be? What is the vision? Or, from an urban dweller’s or a visitor’s perspective, what will it feel like when you are in the midst of South Boston’s Seaport District?

As the debate continues over what to build on South Boston’s waterfront, it is worth noting what has worked in the past. Steffian Bradley Assoc. recently completed a study of successful waterfront development projects around the world and discovered certain recurring themes and elements. Because each waterfront property has its own distinctive identity, we refer to the following precedents only for inspiration and not imitation.

There is one universal thread amongst all waterfront projects – the existence of a public realm. Perhaps nothing will contribute more to the quality and livability of South Boston’s waterfront. A public realm is an attribute that gives the public a sense of access and ownership, and is dictated by the design of streets and squares, shores and water channels, and paths and parks. Boston’s Back Bay, The Boston Common and Public Garden are prime examples of successful public realm design. The Boston Harbor Hotel, with its adherence to the state’s Chapter 91 coastal access statute, has a unique vista that invites the public to walk straight through to Boston Harbor.

The attractiveness of the public realm establishes the flavor of the briefest visit, and can become a memory for a lifetime. When done well, it gives repeated comfort and reward to its everyday users and visitors. It is the quality of the public realm that establishes the value of the property it serves.

‘Destination Development’
But what is this unique form of successful waterfront development? If you build it, will they come? There are generally four characteristics that distinguish a waterfront or destination development. First, they tend to attract people from a very broad area, up to a 125-mile distance. Second, they attract a high level of repeat visits from residents within an hour distance due to the types of attractions, amenities and events they offer. Third, they provide a mix of attractions and amenities that extend the length of visit, the satisfaction of visitors and the level of consumer spending. And fourth, they contribute to the quality of life for nearby residents and office workers, thereby enhancing the value of housing and office buildings in proximity to the development.

What these successful waterfronts have in common is a human scale that literally brings pedestrians to the site to navigate by foot. Though the attractions within the destination are ideally no more than 1,500 feet apart, maintaining pedestrian walkability and vibrancy can also be achieved by defining a district with a unique sense of its own character. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Sydney’s Darling Harbour both offer a range of attractions placed in a well-designed and clearly discernable public realm in such a way as to bring visitors to every corner of the destination in an easy and congenial way.

Also essential to the success of destination developments is a critical mass of retail, dining and entertainment tenants, dependent upon the size of the market and the competition. In addition to achieving a critical mass, destination developments also need to be designed around a calculated mix of tenants. Again, this varies by market, but will typically involve a 50:20:30 mix, or 50 percent retail, 20 percent dining and 30 percent entertainment (in contrast to a shopping mall, which typically has a 75:15:10 mix). Bustling and lively atmospheres in City Walk in Orlando, Fla., and Boat Quay in Singapore are the result of purposeful mixing of tenant types and spillover onto the pedestrian zone of tenant activities such as dining and entertainment.

Unlike traditional malls, destination developments are not typically anchored by department stores. Instead, these projects are supported by a number of anchoring elements including cinemas (of 10 or more screens), clustered restaurants (four to six, usually of signature quality) and brand retailers with large showcase stores. In fact, largely due to its anchor elements, Universal City Walk in Los Angeles has become one of the area’s most popular attractions for both residents and tourists. It consists of a 1,500-foot promenade anchored by a cinematic thrill ride and movie theater complex at one end, and the Universal Hollywood theme park at the other. In between are a variety of restaurant and retail stores, as well as other attractions, such as a neon art museum and an extension center for the University of California at Los Angeles.

Richer Realm
A sense of place is vital to destination developments and successful elements must support both daytime and nighttime activities. A waterfront crowded with families and frisbees in the day might be transformed into a lively night out on the town for residents and tourists alike. To keep a destination fresh and exciting, events-based programming such as holiday lighting shows, performances and visiting exhibits can be utilized to animate the place and bring guests back for yet another visit. Like the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards ballpark and the San Francisco Giants’ Pacific Bell Park, a Major League Baseball stadium would most certainly generate its own vibrancy on the waterfront that would support many other activities.

Along with programming that supports both daytime and nighttime activities, it must also include both active and passive experiences. Passive experiences include people watching in outdoor cafes, watching street performers or observing a water effects show. Chicago’s Navy Pier and Barcelona’s new harbor park demonstrate that providing seating and gathering places along the waterfront can punctuate and animate the experience of visitors and residents.

The design of the waterfront must be capable of sustaining a sequence of experiences that attracts all types of guests – from families, to adults, to residents, to tour groups. If we are to create a successful destination development, we must maintain a public realm, capture the character of the city and provide an integrated guest experience. A new federal courthouse, the expansion of the World Trade Center and a new convention center are all good starts. Now we need to attract the public and keep them there.

Public Access Critical to Success Of South Boston Waterfront Sites

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min