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Boston waterfront overdeveloped, pricey, and racially unwelcoming, survey says

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Recent Conservation Law Foundation poll also found that not too many residents are worried about climate change


The lack of affordable things to do and eat is currently one of the two biggest threats to Boston’s waterfront, according to 42 percent of respondents to a survey that the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation organized through MassINC Polling Group.

The share trumped the 40 percent who see one of the two greatest threats as too much development, and the 30 percent who thought gentrification was likeliest to threaten things. The impacts of climate change, interestingly enough, finished a distant fourth, with only 24 percent of respondents citing it as one of the two biggest threats to the waterfront.

This was despite regular flooding of a sizable portion of the waterfront in recent years and numerous dire warnings about how rising sea levels due to climate change threaten to worsen such flooding and perhaps make parts of Boston’s coastline uninhabitable.

MassINC Polling and the Conservation Law Foundation said the nature of the survey itself—which largely asked about impressions of the waterfront’s activities and atmosphere—might have led to such a low share citing climate change as a big threat. (A late 2018 poll from another nonprofit, the Trustees of Reservations, found overwhelming concern among Boston residents about climate change’s effects on the waterfront.)

“Boston and Massachusetts residents believe climate change is real, man-made, and happening now,” MassINC Polling said in the survey’s results. “They also expect the very sorts of impacts—coastal flooding, storm surges, and sea level rise—that have already and will continue to batter the Waterfront. ... But when climate is ranked against other concerns, it tends to end up below other issues.”

The other big takeaway from the survey was a striking racial disparity regarding impressions of how welcoming the waterfront is, particularly the Seaport District (which many of the survey’s 953 respondents tended to think of as one in the same with the waterfront).

Some 24 percent of black respondents and 20 percent of Hispanic ones said they did not feel welcome on the waterfront compared with 6 percent of whites and 13 percent of respondents overall. Nearly twice the share of blacks and Hispanics than whites said they did not know what there was to do on the waterfront too.

Not surprisingly then perhaps, 65 percent of white respondents reported visiting the waterfront at least three times during the past year versus 44 percent of nonwhites.

These results underscore a long-running perception, bolstered by housing statistics, of the waterfront—the Seaport District in particular—as a bastion of whiteness in a Boston that’s majority-minority. Or, as one of the relatively few comments from survey respondents about race put it: “The ridiculous lost opportunity of the Seaport and its unflinching display of what everyone in the country believes Boston to be... white-only.”

There was a lot of agreement on the costliness of the waterfront—again, the Seaport in particular. A plurality of every racial group said that parking was too expensive. And around or more than one-third each—53 percent for Hispanics—said that activities and dining there were too expensive.

The Conservation Law Foundation cast such responses—as well as the relatively paltry response about the threat of climate change—as opportunities for improving public access and the general future of the waterfront.

“The waterfront and Boston Harbor belong to all of us, not just the white and wealthy,” Brad Campbell, the foundation’s president, said in a statement. “Too many developers have been allowed to wall off access to the water for the benefit of a few, and the rest of the city is finally taking note. We all paid for the cleanup of Boston Harbor and we all deserve equal access to it.”