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In Boston’s Expanding Seaport, Water Is a Threat

2018-6-10

Big things are happening in the Seaport District of Boston, Massachusetts.

General Electric is building its new world headquarters there. Amazon plans to bring in thousands of its workers to the district. The sign of Reebok -- the footwear and clothing business -- sits on top of the new office it opened last year.

The Associated Press reports that three technology companies are testing self-driving cars in the area. In addition, crews are busy building restaurants and apartment housing.

In this June 4, 2018 photo, buildings under construction and finished buildings line Seaport Boulevard in Boston's Seaport District.
In this June 4, 2018 photo, buildings under construction and finished buildings line Seaport Boulevard in Boston's Seaport District.

But after bad flooding this past winter, critics are wondering if it is a good idea to put so many people on a man-made peninsula that sits just above the sea level.

“That was the first winter where we really saw waves splashing onto the boardwalk and water in the streets,” said Greg Hoffmeister. He watched the flooding from the third-floor Seaport office of his business.

He added, “You start to think: Is that what we’re in for, as sea levels rise?”

Boston officials say they are taking steps to prepare for increased flooding and rising sea levels. When English settlers arrived in 1630, the city covered an area of about 200 hectares. Now it is much larger and includes over 2,000 hectares of man-made landfill.

“We know the water is going to be coming in through South Boston, pretty much from every direction, by 2070,” noted Richard McGuinness, a city planner. He was talking about the neighborhood that includes the Seaport District.

A 2016 city report predicted that sea levels could rise up to 20 centimeters by the year 2030, with the Seaport the area most affected.

By 2070, seas could rise 91 centimeters higher than water levels in 2000, affecting some 90,000 people and 12,000 buildings in the area. The economic losses could be in the billions, the report said.

While some developers are designing buildings to survive climate change, many structures that were put up years ago are not ready.

Environmental activists and some researchers believe Boston officials should be trying harder to change development patterns.

Officials say they are looking at ways to change and improve the city’s building rules. They are also considering large and costly public work projects to hold the water back. One proposal calls for building a barrier across Boston Harbor. That project could cost $12 billion and take 30 years to complete.

Last October, the Boston Planning and Development Agency also amended its “climate-ready checklist” for developers. The list requires them to explain how the buildings they design will help lessen the effects of climate change.

But the city does not require developers to follow through, noted Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group.

Boston officials say that many newer Seaport developers are preparing for the worst.

General Electric moved its headquarters from Connecticut to temporary offices in Boston’s Seaport in 2016. The company says the first floor of its new offices will be raised nearly 1.5 meters, or enough to protect it from the higher sea levels. Electrical systems are also being put on the second floor, and emergency power supplies will be on top of the 12-floor building.

The developers of Seaport Square says its buildings stayed dry last winter because of their design.

“We believe in science,” said Yanni Tsipis of WS Development. Seaport Square is a mix of offices, apartment buildings and stores. Amazon says 2,000 of its workers will one day occupy space on the property.

But environmental activists warn much of the district simply is not ready for the rising sea levels. Many young people have moved to the area in recent years. It has become one of the city’s most pricey neighborhoods.

The weakest structures are historic buildings. It is very costly and sometimes impossible to improve them, city officials have said.

A federal report released recently found that nationally, high-tide flooding is happening at two times the rate it was just 30 years ago. The report warned that flooding records will continue to be broken for many years.

By the international airport in East Boston, the city government is investing in a 2-meter high temporary floodwall. In Charlestown, where the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought during the American Revolution, crews are raising the main street more than half a meter.

Deb Friedman, a local woman, wondered if these actions will help. A few months ago, sea water flooded her apartment building.

“Water has a mind of its own, anyway,” she said.

I’m Susan Shand. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

districtn. an area established by a government or community

peninsulan. a piece of land that is almost entirely surrounded by water and is attached to a larger land area

splashv. to make something wet, usually in a noisy way

boardwalk – n. a walkway along the sea or coastline

pattern n. something designed or used as a model for making things

tide – n. the rising and falling of the surface of the ocean