June 30--When Boston developer Don Chiofaro unveiled his new plans for a $1 billion waterfront towers project next to the New England Aquarium at a public meeting last week, some in the audience were hoping it would somehow spell the end of the aquarium's hulking IMAX theater.
The gray, windowless structure -- which opened on the edge of Boston Harbor in 2001 at a cost of $20 million -- is considered by some an eyesore, blocking harbor views almost as much as the parking garage that Chiofaro's development would replace.
Chiofaro's previous skyscraper plans, first presented in 2009 and thwarted by former Mayor Thomas M. Menino, incorporated the IMAX into a glass atrium at the base of the complex.
But this time around, the IMAX so far has been left out of the proposed plans.
"We didn't get into it," Chiofaro said at the Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Planning Advisory Committee meeting, noting the aquarium is a neighbor, and "we expect to be involved and helpful in the highest and best uses in every way possible."
Commenting further, Chiofaro said in a statement that the aquarium would best be able to address questions about the IMAX's future. "To the extent that they would like us to be part of any discussion moving forward, we'd certainly be interested in participating," he said.
But the aquarium has no plans to change the IMAX -- "absolutely not" -- said aquarium chief operating and financial officer Walter Flaherty, noting the large investment. "The IMAX theater is a significant strategic asset for the aquarium and a way we educate our visitors about animals in the ocean that they can't see in our exhibits," Flaherty said. "We host a quarter of a million people annually in that theater. There haven't been any significant discussions with Don Chiofaro about the IMAX theater."
Most structures on the waterfront obstruct harbor views, Flaherty said, citing the Harbor Towers condos and the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel, among others. "Why should the IMAX theater be singled out?" he said.
But, 15 years after construction started on the IMAX, such a project wouldn't get built today, said Boston Harbor Association President Vivien Li, acting chair of the Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Planning Advisory Committee. In the throes of the Big Dig back in 1999, Interstate 93 was still a barrier to the water's edge, and there was no Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
"People couldn't envision that there might be other attractions to the water, and they thought that a huge IMAX theater would be a way to get more people to the water's edge," Li said.
Harbor Towers residents filed a lawsuit over the IMAX, claiming it would have an adverse environmental impact.
But the aquarium argued the IMAX was an ancillary use to its own water-dependent use, Li said. "It was reaching, and I think that people bent over backwards because they believed very strongly in the mission of the aquarium, and the aquarium made the point that they really needed it for their economic stability," she said. "Certainly, if it was suggested by the private sector, it never would have been allowed," because it's a barrier to the harbor.
"Today we would want something that would attract people to the water and have a relationship to the water," she said.
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