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As development booms across the harbor, boosters’ anxiety over languishing waterfront projects in East Boston rises

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / July 12, 2011

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Just the words “South Boston Waterfront’’ can set off City Councilor Sal LaMattina of East Boston.

“I love my neighbors in South Boston, but it’s time the city looked at East Boston. It’s our time now,’’ he said.

LaMattina’s frustration echoes a common lament in East Boston; that all the action in waterfront development is happening across the harbor in South Boston. And despite having fabulous views from an expansive waterfront, and no shortage of big projects that would maximize Eastie’s vantage point, there is little sign that long-dormant development will pick up anytime soon.

With so much focus on the South Boston waterfront, “you feel like a stepchild here,’’ said Carlo Basile, the state legislator who represents East Boston. “South Boston is so hot, everyone wants to live over there, but we have a better view.’’

Four main projects - Portside at Pier One, New Street, Clippership Wharf, and Hodge Boiler Works - have languished for years. Most, like New Street, are fully permitted and awaiting financing.

“We didn’t think it was going to take as long as it took,’’ admitted Bruce Ohanian, who with his family owns three attached buildings on a four-acre waterfront parcel on New Street.

Ohanian started the development process 11 years ago and did not receive his final permit until this spring. His plan calls for 224 apartments and adding seven stories onto a nine-story building. At 16 stories, it will be the tallest building in East Boston. He is looking for a financial partner, a developer to run with the project, or an outright sale.

Some people have expressed interest, but “there is some pioneering that needs to be done. Charlestown has emerged, the North End . . . this is East Boston’s time now,’’ said Ohanian.

Residents have been saying that for years. LaMattina remembers first hearing talk of redeveloping East Boston’s waterfront when he began working for the mayor’s office in 1987. Twenty-four years later, LaMattina calls the inertia in his community, which has staggering views of downtown Boston, Bunker Hill, and the Zakim Bridge, “disappointing’’ and singles out choice weed-choked waterfront plots that have stood idle for years as “disgusting.’’

“When you hear ‘waterfront development,’ you think of opportunities for jobs. We need to do something,’’ said LaMattina.

In the past two decades, developers and private landowners announced plans to open residential buildings with restaurants, boat launches, harbor walks, and even a boutique hotel. One by one, they lost funding, scaled back, or just went away. The down economy and the arduous process of building along the water are culprits, but as South Boston rises with Liberty Wharf, the ICA, Louis Boston, and Fan Pier across the way, city officials and residents wonder: Why not Eastie?

Bob Strelitz - president of the East Boston Project Advisory Committee Inc., a legislative-appointed group authorized to work with Massport on East Boston waterfront development - wants to see a committed investment in East Boston. After 41 years of looking at the city’s gleaming skyline from his deck on Jeffries Point, he is dumbfounded that nothing has happened.

“After so many false starts, you hesitate to put so much faith in developers because they are speculators by nature,’’ Strelitz said.

Residents who have been pushing for a more active East Boston waterfront don’t buy the “down economy’’ line when they peer across the water to a shiny new Liberty Wharf on the Southie side, teeming with tourists.

“What’s happening to the economy on that side?’’ said Debra Cave, an East Boston native and community organizer.

The biggest development, Portside at Pier One, overseen by Roseland Property Co., launched in 2000. It took six years to get through the permitting process, said Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman for Roseland, based in Short Hills, N.J.

Once that hurdle was cleared, the specter of recession began to loom. Roseland sank pilings for the complex, which included 543 residential units, a restaurant, and a health club with epic Boston views, but halted work when the financial markets tightened. The property remains fenced in and overgrown.

“Material costs were through the roof, and that impacted all projects, and here we are,’’ said Sterling. She said Roseland is hopeful of breaking ground again soon.

“There’s a six-to-nine-month window with reasonable interest rates and low construction costs,” said Sterling. “We are working to find the right combination of price, materials, and labor to be able to build in this economic environment.’’

Although Mayor Thomas M. Menino has spent enormous resources promoting South Boston’s “Innovation District’’ across the way, he says East Boston will get its due as soon as the right market forces align.

“While I’m disappointed that the permitted projects have yet to come to life, it is not because of a problem that is unique to East Boston. The housing market has been in a slump across the entire nation and these projects are subject to good market conditions,’’ Menino said in an e-mail.

He noted that representatives from Roseland are scheduled to brief him on their most recent designs, “and I expect that they will break ground this fall.’’

State Senator Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, feels that too much ground work, investment, and infrastructure is in place for East Boston’s waterfront not to take off once the economy fully rebounds.

“These projects will recover and East Boston will emerge quicker than other places because the foundation has been laid,’’ he said. “It’s been a tough couple of years. I’m hopeful.’’


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