The Rise of the Seaport

As yet another wave of high-profile development kicks off, we highlight the 10 game-changing moments for the hottest neighborhood in town.

By Matthew Reed Baker, Chris Vogel, and Patrick Doyle

seaport district map

Map by Infomen

Over the past 150 years, the Seaport has undergone a series of transformations. It’s evolved from a muddy spot in Boston Harbor (much of it was covered by water until the late 1800s), to a thriving shipping area that in the early part of the 20th century received raw materials like wool and leather for local textile factories, to a decrepit no-man’s land of parking lots and abandoned warehouses in the mid-1900s, to its most recent iteration: a hotbed of construction and urban infill. Today, cranes seem to rise every other week, erecting office buildings, condominiums, retail stores, and restaurants. And those amenities, coupled with the location — across from downtown, right off the highway, and just a short T ride to the airport — have made the Seaport a prime spot for growth. How did it all come together? Ahead, we look at the 10 vital developments that turned the Boston Seaport into a thriving city neighborhood.


1. A Rotting Neighborhood Beckons
Mayor Kevin White moved into his office at the new City Hall in 1968. According to the late Boston College historian Thomas O’Connor, “When he looked out … down at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, they were rotten. And just beyond that, he could see the Seaport, and that was rotten, too.” White set some preliminary planning into motion, but it was Mayor Tom Menino who made development of the Seaport a priority, pushing for the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the ICA to get built there and at one point proposing to move City Hall there, too. Just two years ago, he dubbed the area the “Innovation District” and set about creating a tech hub to rival Cambridge.

2. The Feds Move In
More than a few eyebrows were raised in 1991 when the city ­announced it was moving the federal courthouse from the heart of the Financial District to the then-desolate Seaport. But when the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse (pictured above) opened seven years later, complete with an 88-foot-tall glass wall overlooking a park and the harbor, it became an instant monument to what is possible in Boston: an architectural triumph that transformed a rundown dock into a place of vital civic importance. The Seaport was suddenly a place to conduct serious business. For years, though, the courthouse remained one of the few buildings around, sticking out like a “kid in the 6th grade who has grown to 5-foot-10 and everyone else is 5-foot-1,” says federal judge Douglas Woodlock. “But now we’re in the foreground of a large development, and we’re satisfied that it is going in the direction we had hoped and that we played some part.”

3. An Artery Runs Through It (with On- Ramps)
The Big Dig may have been a financial black hole, but today’s Seaport wouldn’t exist without the $14.6 billion project: The new I-93 and I-90 interchange meant that city and suburban dwellers could reach the Seaport in just a few (relatively stress-free) minutes. Meanwhile, the Silver Line, the Big Dig’s mandated public-transit component, ensured that conventioneers, residents, and workers could easily get to and from the airport. The most important change, though, may have been psychological: By burying the dingy, elevated Central Artery — which had previously cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city — the Seaport and downtown were at last connected.

4. Room With a View
Thanks to tight land-use laws and development-averse neighborhood groups, Boston has had a shortage of hotel rooms since forever. Not so in the Seaport, which, owing to lots of empty space and few NIMBYs, has seen the construction of three big hotels in the past 15 years: the Seaport Boston Hotel (built in 1998 and renovated in 2009), the Westin Boston Waterfront (opened in 2006), and the Renaissance Boston Waterfront (opened in 2008). The development of those properties proved that the Seaport was now a top-notch place to stay outside of downtown. (The harbor and skyline views didn’t hurt, either.

5. South Boston Gets Conventional
In the late ’90s, Boston was losing the high-stakes battle for convention dollars to other cities — thanks, in part, to the outdated facilities at the Hynes Convention Center. The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center changed that when it opened in 2004. Constructed under the watchful eye of former Menino chief of staff James Rooney, the hulking testament to modern architecture elevated Boston from a second-tier convention destination to one of the top 10 in North America. The business crowds continue to be a serious economic engine — all those badge-wearing, corporate-credit-card-toting conventioneers created an economic impact of $520 million in 2011.

6. Cue the Culture
When Jill Medvedow took over as director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1998, she immediately began looking for alternatives to the museum’s cramped Boylston Street space. Her timing was perfect. Just one year later, Menino set up the Boston 2000 Commission to award a waterfront site to a cultural institution. The ICA’s proposed 65,000-square-foot building — designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro — would go on to win the competition, and became the first arts museum to be built in the city in a century. Since its 2006 opening, the ICA (pictured below) has drawn an average of 200,000 visitors a year — more than seven times the traffic it generated at its Back Bay location. With its focus on contemporary art, plus DJ nights and outdoor concerts, the ICA is on the cultural vanguard. “We feel that being on the waterfront, we’re on the edge of Boston looking out,” says Paul Bessire, the museum’s deputy director for external relations. “Not just toward the harbor, but out toward the future.”

7. Fallon’s Crest
In 2005, Joe Fallon, the founder, president, and CEO of powerhouse development firm the Fallon Company, bought the 21-acre Fan Pier waterfront site — at the time a parking wasteland — from Hyatt Development Corporation chairman and president Nicholas Pritzker, whose own plans had stalled over a slumping real estate market and a family feud. “I paid $115 million, a bargain,” Fallon says. “But who knew back then?” Seven years later, he’s in the middle of a vast mixed-use plan that includes not just millions of square feet of office space, but also a hotel, a marina, a park, retail space, and condos. He’s already attracted restaurants like Strega Waterfront, haute-couture haven Louis (pictured above), and Salon Mario Russo. But the biggest tenant by far is Vertex Pharmaceuticals: The company’s global headquarters — twin 18-story towers with 1.1 million square feet of research labs and office space — are under construction (pictured in the background above) and will open next year. The biotech multinational signed a 15-year lease worth $1.1 billion in 2011, joining other major corporations in the area such as Manulife Financial (John Hancock’s parent company) and Fidelity Investments.

8. The Lynchpin
Fleeing rising rents in Cambridge, artists, photography studios, and tech startups began moving into rehabbed — and relatively affordable — Fort Point warehouses around 2000. Barbara Lynch rode that wave by launching restaurants Menton, Sportello, and Drink, while just a block away Joanne Chang opened an outpost of the acclaimed Flour Bakery + Café. The new residents and restaurants laid the groundwork for more employers to relocate to the area. “The momentum of the neighborhood helped us feel good about what we’re doing,” says Mike Swartz of digital design firm Upstatement. “When I’m out in Fort Point, I see people I know — it has a cool small-town feeling.”

9. Full-on Foodie Assault
Fort Point’s smaller eateries have succeeded in feeding the locals, but they weren’t designed for the masses. Enter Liberty Wharf (pictured left): The $60 million development opened in spring 2011 with Jerry Remy’s, Temazcal, Del Frisco’s, and the massive Legal Harborside. With an easy highway off-ramp and plenty of parking, suburbanites were suddenly able to come in for a high-end dinner on the harbor. And come, they have, to the great relief of Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Sea Foods, who worried whether the area was developed enough to pull in diners. Says Berkowitz, “I think there was a pent-up demand from Bostonians in general to have access to the waterfront.”

10. Yeah, But Can You Live Here?
With so few places to live in the area, most workers stream out of the Seaport come evening. That’s about to change: There are at least nine residential buildings either planned or under construction. Shawn Hurley, the Boston regional manager of Skanska, is working on a 16-story, 300-unit apartment building overlooking the waterfront, part of the Seaport Square development. The area “is a ground zero for investment dollars, both public and private,” Hurley says. While mixed-use projects are moving forward, residents are still begging for a regular grocery store, a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, and banks. “Everything,” says restaurateur Lynch, “that a new urban neighborhood needs.”