By the turn of the millennium, the South Boston Waterfront, formerly the center of Boston’s port, had become a field of empty parking lots that had resisted multiple attempts at re-development for nearly forty years. As a result of inheriting foreclosed assets, a local developer and major national bank challenged KPF to create a master plan for a neighborhood that could be successfully developed and also achieve the goals articulated by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA): a mixed-use, walkable, urban district that would attract top talent and grow Boston’s knowledge economy, which was competing with the Bay Area and New York.

Note

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of KPF Review. Watch the accompanying video here.

KPF created a flexible master plan that, since its completion in 2010, has weathered a major financial crisis and global pandemic to become one of America’s most complete innovation districts, recognized globally for having attracted leading life sciences, technology, and media companies as well as a new generation of knowledge workers. The master plan calibrated the program mix to generate activity, foster social exchange, and create a visually interesting urban environment through various scales of development.

At KPF, our master planning work is informed by our fundamental identity as architects. We believe urbanism cannot be understood through only two dimensions, so we design neighborhoods three-dimensionally—not just where things go, but how they feel, their character, and the experiences they provide. In our role as master planners, we engaged in workshops through the early 2000s, while Seaport was still a series of empty lots, to inform our approach to creating a meaningful place within a previously characterless district. Upon the completion of the master plan, the land was parceled off to various developers that built out projects from our plan.

Aerial before the development of the master plan (left) and current progress, October, 2022 (Right, image courtesy of Aaron Fedor).

Subsequently, we have again become involved in the neighborhood with the design of Echelon Seaport, and have reflected on the master plan through nearby projects such as Channelside. These realize the intentions of the original plan while incorporating contemporary ideas about urbanism to continually better the neighborhood. Our work, then and now, has catalyzed, anchored, and enriched a once empty space, contributing significantly to Boston’s newest neighborhood and prompting the regeneration of similarly underutilized districts.

 

We have been involved—first as master planner, then as architect—in the Seaport Innovation District for over fifteen years. This experience has provided us with a unique perspective to reflect on the successes and failures of various ideas and a litany of lessons learned for future master planning endeavors.

Image courtesy of Chuck Choi.

Connecting Clusters, Filling Voids.

In the early 2000s, Boston’s “Big Dig” relieved Downtown of its raised highway barrier, freeing up its waterfront and allowing visual and physical connection to a transformed Seaport. Several solitary architectural interventions, such as the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse and the Institute of Contemporary Art, had begun to animate Seaport’s expanse of asphalt in those same years.

Though significant elements of an emerging district, these isolated acts did not constitute enough critical mass to turn the district into a neighborhood. Even with the addition of mixed-use programming at Fan Pier, Seaport still needed a geographic center and a sense of purpose. The KPF team was faced with a question: what could this underused space provide Bostonians and how could this attract innovative companies and residents?

At the urban scale, a large hole in Boston’s fabric was filled by extending patterns of streets and buildings that distinguished the various zones at the edges of the site. Each of these responded to the character of the neighborhoods immediately adjacent, linking them to the mixed-use heart at the project’s center.

Image courtesy of Chuck Choi.

Enhancing connectivity was a major goal. Seaport Boulevard, the master plan’s primary spine, became a central axis connecting to the Downtown that also served as an orienting device for the nascent neighborhood. Connecting to the boulevard at right angles, Harbor Way was proposed as a “Cultural Corridor” linking the Institute of Contemporary Art with various gallery spaces and the newly planned Seaport Hill Park. At its southern end, it would ascend to elevated Summer Street. A link bridge was to connect Seaport to Downtown by establishing a complete vehicular and pedestrian loop through both neighborhoods.

From these major connections, surrounding street and building typologies were carefully extended into the new neighborhood with the aim of supporting an integrated urban experience. Much of the master plan constituted an ambitious set of goals when first proposed. By minimizing above grade parking, creating basements that would extend under roads for shared efficiency, and layering commercial and residential zoning both horizontally and vertically, the plan was set to transform a residual edge zone into a fully urban neighborhood. The mix of uses, integrating residential, office, retail, and community space, was central to the vision of this truly urban place.

Image courtesy of Chuck Choi.

Making Places, Inviting People

Without controlling the architecture—the specific forms and materials that would fill out the master plan—KPF was faced with the challenge of defining an innovation district through broad planning gestures. One important objective was to ensure that this district would have a sense of place: if a Bostonian were to be dropped in Seaport, would they know where they were? The master plan presented a dual solution: variable scale of public realm combined with carefully crafted open spaces.

The master plan included a range of public spaces, including large open areas for gatherings and events, and more intimate piazzas and small lanes for other kinds of urban experiences. This variety was meant to allow for eclectic programs and tenants, creating street-to-street interest and establishing a memorable quality to the neighborhood. Large buildings predominate to the north, and quieter, intimate spaces to the south.

Richness and variety of experience were achieved not only through spatial planning, but also through suggested programming. The master plan uniquely considered the seasonal possibilities of its open spaces and prescribed programming such as farmers’ markets, ice skating rinks, outdoor yoga classes, and more.

Image courtesy of Chuck Choi.

With the key ideas in place the question then became: How does a master plan identify placemaking elements that create a true innovation district? The district already had the potential to be an economic engine. Logan Airport, the Silver Line, and South Station are all proximate, and its adjacency to the existing central business district meant many of the ingredients were already there.

Echelon Seaport. Image courtesy of Chuck Choi.

The answer lay in realizing that the needs of knowledge firms, workers and residents were aligned in a shared desire for a lifestyle-focused neigborhood. For those who can be anywhere, the quality of urban life is the key attribute that gives them somewhere to call home. Through design guidelines, a curated mix of uses, and public space protocols, the master plan laid the foundation for particular urban experiences—breweries, cafes, pop-ups, and other offerings one might seek for socializing outside of work, spaces that result in the everyday, serendipitous encounters so critical to fostering innovation.

Largely, these master planning moves were successful. Seaport has become one of Boston’s most desirable places to live and has attracted Boston’s highest density of venture capital and technology firms, while ranking second only to Kendall Square in the biotech industry. Notable tenants include Amazon, Autodesk, General Electric, WeWork, Fidelity Investments, and a significant quantity of start-ups.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

It is unusual for an architecture firm to conceive of a neighborhood master plan, undertake subsequent projects that form part of its decades-long realization (Echelon Seaport), and then design projects in nearby areas that respond to the mostly-realized master plan as a new existing context (Channelside).

Aerial watercolor of the Seaport Square district (center) and Echelon Seaport (right image courtesy of Raimund Koch and left image courtesy of Chuck Choi).

Reflecting on the Seaport master plan now, there are a few things we would do differently in the year 2022 than between 2006 and 2010. To execute the plan to its full potential, we would remain involved in the development of the neighborhood to control the material and scale of the resulting vertical elements. Additionally, climate change and social justice have moved from being elements of master planning to being central to urban design. At the time, our plans for the Seaport Square Innovation District were seen as onerous for their requirements of environmental performance and affordable housing, but today, we realize they did not go far enough in addressing the rapidly increasing risks of sea-level rise and enhancing urban resiliency, nor in calling for dramatic cuts in operational and embodied carbon, nor for expanding beyond affordable housing to address issues of economic inclusion and opportunity for all.

Our subsequent work in Boston has responded to these lessons, with consideration for the criticism of aspects of the realized neighborhood. These projects embody the original spirit of our master plan while considering what KPF, Boston, and the architecture industry at large have learned in the last decade.

Aerial watercolor of Channelside (center). Renderings by Dbox (left, right).

As realized today, only one major piece of KPF’s plan—the inclined pedestrian connection to Summer Street—was changed substantially by subsequent master plan revisions under new ownership. As a result, in Seaport it is possible to see today a developed space that largely reflects KPF’s original master plan from a bird’s eye view. The project has become one of the most impactful urban developments in the United States—stimulating Boston’s economy and retaining knowledge firms and workers—and one of several projects across the country that serve as successful models of high-density, mixed-use city living located in formerly industrial waterfront locations.

Today, Seaport has blossomed into a thriving and still evolving urban center. The district is unrecognizable from what it was twenty years ago, and it will be unrecognizable again in another twenty. Having laid the groundwork through the master plan and currently reinvigorating the neighborhood through architecture, KPF has been and will continue designing livable, sustainable, inclusive, and desirable urban spaces for Seaport, Boston, and beyond.