Boston’s Fort Point Channel, for decades a polluted workhorse of industry, is about to undergo a dramatic transformation to a recreational and social playground that could host floating restaurants and music shows, kayak rentals and fishing charters.
This fall, major property owners along the channel will lay the groundwork for its renaissance with new public docks that will increase access to the milelong waterway, advancing the city’s vision of a civic space akin to the Boston Common or the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
An $11 million plan for improvements to the channel is modeled, in part, on waterfronts in Chicago, Seattle, and other cities where museums, outdoor dining, and public events draw crowds to their shorelines.
The catalyst for the burst of activity in Boston is a law signed earlier this month by Governor Deval Patrick that essentially rezones the channel for recreational use, allowing installation of docks and other floating structures that were once banned to protect commercial navigation.
“These changes will allow us to take an urban waterway and activate it in ways that have been very successful in other cities,’’ said James Rooney, head of the nearby convention center and president of Friends of the Fort Point Channel, a civic group involved in the channel restoration.
Most of the boat ramps, taxi stations and docks will be built by commercial property owners who are required by their environmental permits to improve public access and amenities to their waterfronts.
Funds for many other improvements, such as floating art barges and water festivals, will be raised from fees charged to firms planning future building projects in the area.
New developments are moving slowly in the down economy, so it may take several years before new attractions are built. The shuttered Boston Tea Party Museum, for example, is still raising money to complete renovations and reopen facilities closed after being struck by lightning in 2001.
Another wave of improvements will probably result from the eventual redevelopment of the US Postal Service mail facility, which is planning to relocate to South Boston. But that project, too, has also been slowed by the recession.
Still, the new access points to begin construction this fall will open the channel to an array of possibilities, including floating restaurants and cafes, fountains, model boat racing, and other attractions included in a plan City Hall has for the area.
“I’ve always seen this area as a great opportunity for rowing and other events on the water,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in an interview. “Right now, it’s really just dead, unused space. But the improvements in access will help us open it up and plan for the future of that whole area.’’
Already Boston Properties has built a 60-foot ramp to a dock that will provide temporary docking service for visiting boaters behind the 32-story tower it is building at the corner of Congress Street and Atlantic Avenue. The tower will have an expansive public plaza on the channel to eventually include a new tour service and concierge desk that will provide information on waterfront attractions.
Further up the channel, Procter & Gamble Co., which owns Gillette and its sprawling headquarters in South Boston, will begin construction this fall on a 60-foot dock in an area that will be dedicated to canoeing and kayaking. City officials are also urging Procter & Gamble to provide free public parking on its property, a request the firm is considering.
The Boston Children’s Museum is planning to build a dock for a water taxi station next spring. The museum is also exploring floating educational facilities and a possible partnership with a boat rental service, although those plans are still being developed.
“We would love to see this channel come alive,’’ said Amy Auerbach, the museum’s chief financial officer. “There are so many teaching and learning opportunities, and we want to take advantage of that as much as we can.’’
In many ways, Fort Point is ideal for a public park. The channel itself is about a mile long with a watersheet stretching more than 50 acres, making the area larger than the Boston Common. The expanded access will offer new perspectives to view the Boston Tea Party, which was staged in this corner of the harbor in 1773, and the wharves and warehouses that made the city a maritime center. The channel is also protected from wind and choppy surf, making it an ideal place to learn to use kayaks and canoes.
Parts of it still suffer from its past as an industrial zone, particularly the further reaches between the MBTA railroad tracks and Interstate 93, where trash and other debris are in plain view.
For more than a century, the channel was an active shipping route that provided access to smoke-belching rail and lumber yards in South Bay. But commercial traffic slowed dramatically in the 20th century, and for the last 50 years it has remained largely unused.
Recently some portions of the channel waterfront were spruced up. A new boardwalk in front of the Boston Children’s Museum, for example, is a popular fishing site, a fact that still seems surreal to those who remember when water in the channel was repellent to any form of life.
Rooney is a South Boston native who vividly recalls the rotten-egg stench emanating from the channel during his youth.
“It was so bad you didn’t even want to walk or drive over the bridges, ’’ he said.
As the Greenway was a byproduct of years of Big Dig construction, Fort Point Channel’s comeback is due to another major public works project: The $3.8 billion cleanup of Boston Harbor, which removed decades worth of sewage and industrial filth and made the water safer for recreational use.
While today its gray-green waters are hardly pristine, the channel is free of dangerous levels of contaminants, and it offers a pleasant getaway for residents and office workers. Sunny afternoons bring lunch-time crowds; office workers gather with their Blackberries out as children fish and tourists whiz by on bicycles or Segway scooters.
Getting to the next step could take years, but environmental advocates say the first wave of change promises that the once-forgotten channel is on its way to becoming a much livelier place.
“It’s not instantly going to be Venice on the water, but it will offer cultural activities that people can easily access,’’ said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association. “People from all over the city will be able to enjoy the waterfront in a very safe area.’’
Casey Ross Boston Globe August 14, 2010