October 4, 2010
WHEN THE City of Boston chooses between protecting open space and promoting economic development, one gauge should be whether the property has unique features that make it especially suitable for job creation. On that score, the Boston Redevelopment Authority should proceed with its plan to locate green-energy industries on the former Hess oil-tank property in East Boston, one of the city’s few sizable portside sites with direct access to deep water. The alternative is to convert the 7-acre site on Chelsea Creek into a wetland and migratory bird habitat.
That plan, backed by the Chelsea Creek Action Group and other conservation organizations, envisions a freshwater pond and wetland near the Condor Street end of the property and a salt marsh on the creek side. It is an appealing proposal, if only to balance the environmental justice scale that has been tipped so unfairly against East Boston and Chelsea neighbors of the salt piles, oil tanks, and other polluting facilities on the creek.
But those neighborhoods — and the area as a whole — could use some economic justice as well, in the form of decent-paying industrial jobs. That is the goal of the BRA. By law, any industry using the site would have to be “water-dependent,’’ but that could include a range of renewable energy firms, including the builders of wind turbine blades that are so large they have to be transported by barge.
The site is so degraded that either proposal would require extensive and costly preparation work. The Chelsea Creek group is applying for funds from a $6.1 million pollution settlement paid by ExxonMobil after its Everett terminal spilled more than 15,000 gallons of fuel into the Mystic and Island End rivers. The group’s plan envisions a boardwalk leading to a salt marsh overlook.
The BRA also would give residents access to the water’s edge along a portion of the site via a wide pathway. Meanwhile, a couple hundred yards to the east, the city has already created a small waterfront park, the Condor Street Urban Wild, with meadow grass and salt-marsh vegetation. Its high point offers a view from the Mystic River bridge to the new Chelsea Street drawbridge under construction. Slowly but surely, the community is winning back Chelsea Creek from industries that have polluted both air and water. The BRA’s plan for the Hess site is a compromise that combines access to the creek with a potential future home for green manufacturing jobs.