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Boston to shrug aside climate risk, proceed with waterfront development

By Colin Sullivan
ClimateWire
This city's foremost environmental official yesterday said low-lying Beantown has no intention of backing away from waterfront development because of risks associated with sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration. Jim Hunt, chief of environment for Boston, told attendees at a Ceres investor's conference that the city is "quietly" planning for climate change resiliency, but that does not mean rethinking a 1,000-acre project in the so-called Innovation District.

This city's foremost environmental official yesterday said low-lying Beantown has no intention of backing away from waterfront development because of risks associated with sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration.

Jim Hunt, chief of environment for Boston, told attendees at a Ceres investor's conference that the city is "quietly" planning for climate change resiliency, but that does not mean rethinking a 1,000-acre project in the so-called Innovation District.

Cities hold half the world's population and produce more than 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. While they have heightened risks from floods, storms and sea level rise, they are often left out of national and global warming talks. This series shows how some are beginning their own plans to deal with a more hostile climate.

The district, on the south Boston waterfront within hailing distance of the Boston Harbor, has seen a remarkable transformation over the past two years since longtime Mayor Tom Menino (D) declared it a priority to attract business to the area.

Already home to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the district -- once known for old, brick warehouses and its share of vacant lots -- has attracted businesses, restaurants, plans for a tower called the Watermark Seaport and the Westin hotel that is playing host to this week's Ceres conference. Ceres is a coalition of investors and environmental, social and public interest groups trying to create a greater awareness of climate change issues.

Hunt said Boston has already put climate risk policies into motion with new zoning laws that force buildings to take sea level rise and other factors into account. But that acknowledgement will not deter Menino from pushing forward in south Boston, he said.

"We're not going to stop development," Hunt said. "We are going to develop it."

Will the 'Big Dig' need a bailout?

Hunt went on to expansively discuss Boston's status as a coastal city with progressive roots, saying the unofficial capital of New England has just begun to "scratch the surface" of how to prepare for climate change. He specifically cited the Deer Island wastewater treatment facility, which was raised by nearly 2 feet to prepare for sea level rise, as an example of Boston's leadership in the climate/urban planning nexus.

To Hunt, the decision to raise the facility -- which sits on a peninsula in the harbor and is the second largest treatment plant in the United States -- reflects a need to "plan forward" with respect to climate rather than looking back.

"With respect to resiliency and risk, the way we have built for the last 375 years has really been based on what we know in the rearview mirror," he said. "Now we're looking forward."

Asked if that means the mega Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also known as the "Big Dig") would have gone forward, with extensive infrastructure underground, Hunt gave much the same answer as he did with respect to the vulnerable waterfront.

"I think it would have happened," he said, in reference to the decision to start planning 30 years ago for what would become the most expensive highway project in U.S. history. "I think we will continue to make decisions like that."

He added: "We'll be smarter in terms of how we bounce back [from the Big Dig]. We'll need to take a longer view, 100 years forward."

Hunt stressed that the need to plan for adaptation is most important with respect to infrastructure, given that some predictions have retrofits and new projects to cope with sea level rise and other climate-associated risks costing U.S. municipalities anywhere from half a trillion dollars to $1 trillion over the next 40 years.

He said the Boston Water and Sewage Commission and the city's transportation authority both have to look forward to take the impacts into account.

How to finance risk avoidance?

Others in attendance here saw Hunt's comments as reflecting a need to start decentralizing infrastructure away from massive plants like Deer Island in favor of a spread-out approach.

"Engineers love to build toward certainty, but what we're seeing is a shift toward risk management," said Jeffrey Odefey, director of American Rivers' stormwater program.

Hunt admitted this is the new reality facing urban planners and policymakers at the local level. Boston has reacted to the threat of higher waters and storm levels by directing engineers to move mechanical and electrical systems in new buildings up high, at the top of buildings rather than in the basement.

But the challenge in that respect is old buildings don't turn over as quickly as, say, consumer preferences for automobiles. Dan Probst, chairman of sustainability at Jones Lang LaSalle -- a commercial real estate firm -- said securing financing for retrofits in cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco is "a big obstacle.

Probst said banks have started "getting creative" and working with local programs like PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), but he said more needs to be done. He cited the retrofit of the Empire State Building in particular, which has been credited with reducing energy consumption in the 1930s-era tower by 34 percent.

"The thing that was unique about the Empire State Building is they had money," he said. "A lot of others don't."

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