Port Norfolk talks project, hears of oncoming tidal woes

A city-led gathering of neighbors, ostensibly called to begin general discussions on planning for the vulnerable Port Norfolk peninsula with the threat of climate change on the horizon, focused mostly on worries sparked by a proposed development on the waterfront. About 20 neighbors attended the meeting last Wednesday evening at the Port Norfolk Yacht Club.

Concerns around the proposed Neponset Wharf project — some 96 units and 170 parking spaces on the current MarineMax/Russo Marine site and a rehabilitation of the associated marina — culminated earlier this fall with a forceful call from neighbors and elected officials for developers to reassess the project. While that is ongoing, planners are looking for input into what residents would like to see in their neighborhood, to better guide the developers.

“We thought it would be a good idea to do it kind of outside of the context of a development project,” city project manager Tim Czerwienski told the assembled group. The agenda included a briefing on a forthcoming Climate Ready Dorchester initiative that will assess areas vulnerable to increased flooding and make recommendations to guide development.

Port Norfolk’s peninsula is in danger on all three sides from high tides, Boston Planning and Development Agency planner Müge Ündemir explained as she went through prospective flood maps for the years 2030, 2050, and 2070 showing that over the next 50 years or so, the 2018 village will shrink to a sliver in the center as tidal waters eat away at the edges.

“High tides happen twice a day,” she noted. “This is not something that’s going to be irregular; it’s going to be regularly occurring.”

Those living in the Port today are well aware of the flood risks. “We’ve seen these slides and we’re very knowledgeable about them,” said Maria Lyons. “We saw it last winter when we got flooded, and you don’t have to convince anyone here that we’re gonna get flooded.”

The issue, Lyons said, is the vagueness of trying to plan for the climate aspect of Port development when the study has not yet begun.

For moments where the conversation focused on the Neponset Wharf plan, the developers had a representative of their architecture team on hand to take it all in as residents aired their disagreements among residents on the best use for the area.

For his part, Ed Roche is hoping for a maritime use, possibly with a connection to a university. A few others liked the maritime idea, with Ben Tankle suggesting some role for the boat slips in better connecting the Port with other points along the Harbor coastline. John Lyons, president of the Port Norfolk Civic Association, said he would like developers to “make it a working marina,” adding that if residential elements fit with the plan, that could be an option.

Ralph Bruno, who owns the neighboring Venezia restaurant complex and Boston Winery, said he chose to sell the lots meant for Neponset Wharf to City Point Capital instead of to those who would have built something strictly as allowed by zoning, like a fish processing plant, in part because he appreciated City Point’s vision for the parcels.

“I refused a lot of businesses I could do with maritime service,” he said. “What the neighborhood has to realize is that area needs to be built. If somebody else comes in and says, ‘Look, I’m gonna do whatever I want by right,’ the neighborhood and myself next door won’t have much to say.”

Steve Tankle was not on board with maritime use alone. The lifelong Port Norfolk resident said that he is not sure what exactly should go on the lots. But dealing with the peninsula’s flooding on top of rehabilitating “eyesore” parcels was a steep burden.

“It’s all getting dropped on these developers,” he said. “I don’t know them, I don’t care to know them, I just hope there’s development that helps the neighborhood. It’s not fair to anyone who owns those lots.”

Some, like Roche and Ben Tankle, felt that this meeting was dismissive of earlier planning for the neighborhood in the mid-80s.

“Everything you’ve mentioned is fine,” Tankle said, “but you made it sound like ‘the hell with 1985 with the zoning that we did, because, gee, it doesn’t work now.’ What happens to people who still live here and love it and want to build so their children can get here? You’re saying, ‘beat it.’”

Tankle took issue with the Neponset Wharf proposal, which would rise at its highest point to seven stories. Condos in such a development are not for families, he said, and “we rezoned this joint to stop that from happening.”

Czerwienski clarified that the BPDA is only trying to facilitate a conversation between the developers and the neighborhood and the city on any potential changes to the zoning.

“I want to be super clear,” he said, “that I don’t think we’re saying that the zoning is no good. I think the zoning has worked for a long time… the BPDA is not interested in taking anyone’s home, in changing anything you guys have built over past decades.”

He appreciated the suggestion from another resident that a map made of sites that are under development or rumored to be in flux be created so that later meetings could have a better picture of the village’s future.

But the water is coming, Czerwienski said, pointing to the flood maps. “I’m not saying, ‘Hey, we have to build 150 condos on the tip of Port Norfolk and everything will be fine,’” he said. “What I’m saying is, we need to as a city and as a community work together to think about what are the strategies that we can deploy on land that we own, and on land that’s owned by private actors, to protect the neighborhood from this threat. Because by 2070, and this is a conservative estimate, we’re going to work in canoes at that point.”

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