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Is GE's New HQ Already Threatened By Climate Change?

The site of GE's headquarters may be threatened by climate change.
Lauren Owens/GroundTruth Project

General Electric may the biggest name building on the Boston waterfront, but the corporate titan is just one of many investors pouring money into development threatened by climate change.

There’s also a wave of money washing over the East Boston waterfront.

But here at 25 Lewis Street, soon to be one of the neighborhood’s biggest developments, it's mostly just piles of rubble and decaying piers. Nearly one third of Boston is made up of filled-in tidelands, and when a site is left alone for a while, the sea wants to take it back.

“Mother nature is reclaiming the site. You can see these seawalls are falling down, you can see the shoreline is eroding,” says Jamie Fay, founder and president of Fort Point Associates.

With developer Lendlease, Fay's company is designing 400 apartments here called Clippership Wharf, named for the site's origins as a shipyard. It's been vacant for decades, but the site sports some remnants of its industrial past, including an old concrete seawall. Instead of restoring that seawall as it was, Fort Point Associates is doing something unusual: they're pulling back, leaving what’s called a “living shoreline” with tide pools and salt marshes that will act as a buffer zone for sea-level rise and storm surges.

“It’s still not going to be Cape Cod here,” says Fay, “but there will be a little piece of this project that people can look at and say, OK, maybe this is what the shoreline of Boston Harbor used to look like.”

Fay's thinking ahead, adapting this building—and its business proposition—to climate change. You can see how developers are adjusting their buildings to the reality of coastal flooding. Next to Clippership is a building built about 10 years ago. Fay points out that its first occupied floor is raised about a foot off the ground. On the other side of the Clippership Wharf site is another building, just two years old, with its first residential floor raised about four feet. Clippership Wharf's apartments will be another four feet higher than that.

“You can see from the early 2000s, it's been going up and up,” says Fay.

These developers aren't going “up and up” because of regulation. As far as climate change adaptation goes, City Hall only requires waterfront buildings to submit a checklist of things they've done to consider the impact of things like sea-level rise and storm surge flooding. There's no requirement that they act on it. But, developers like Fay say, no one wants their investment underwater.

Magdalena Ayed says no matter their motivation, developers need to build a neighborhood that's resilient in the face of climate change. Ayed is a community organizer in East Boston. Recently updated federal maps of flood risk areas show that much of her neighborhood would be underwater during a big storm.

Ayed says she’s happy that city officials and some developers are starting to take this seriously— for the sake of her two young sons who are growing up here. She and her neighbors are working with the city to make sure climate change planning remains focused on protecting the city's most vulnerable residents.

“We need help,” she says. “We need people to listen to what our concerns are, to come into this community and consider us local community experts and take that local community expertise and put it into the planning.”

But working neighborhood by neighborhood is complicated. It’s tempting to look for silver bullet solutions that would take care of the entire city, like a giant storm surge barrier spanning Boston Harbor. But Paul Kirshen, a professor of climate adaptation at UMass Boston, says those solutions are very expensive—and they rarely work.

It isn't just a matter of mustering the political will to unlock piles of money.

“The trick about adaptation planning is not to under-invest or over-invest,” says Kirshen.

It’s hard to know exactly how much is being spent, but Kirshen says right now we’re underinvesting. And the longer we wait, the more the fix is going to cost us.

“It would be a net expense. But if you compare it with the cost of doing nothing,” says Kirshen, “Then the benefits of adaptation are huge.”

Each dollar spent adapting could yield four to 20 dollars in economic return, he says. That could still mean spending billions of dollars for new development and additional infrastructure. But, Kirshen says, we'd be building a better city in the process.
Adapting to climate change isn’t just about avoiding damage, says Kirshen. It can actually create new economic opportunities. There's a historical parallel for this. In the 1980s, we started spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up Boston Harbor, and that laid the foundation for today’s harborfront real estate boom.

That lesson is not lost on City Hall. For years officials have been working on Climate Ready Boston. Austin Blackmon—the city’s chief of environment, energy and open space—says it’ll be the city’s first comprehensive plan to deal with climate change.

“Climate Ready Boston is the Moneyball of climate analysis,” says Blackmon. “This is us using all the data available to make the most informed decisions to help us understand what the wisest investments are that are available to us.”

The City is also looking for help from abroad. Blackmon is part of a group of city officials and private businesspeople traveling to Europe this week.

Their first stop is someplace that could teach them a lot about managing water.

“In fact the history of the Netherlands is the history of floods,” says Roeland Hillen, who runs the national flood defense program of the Netherlands. I met him on top of a dike outside Rotterdam, which was being reinforced as part of a routine of flood-control maintenance that costs the Dutch about a billion dollars each year.

“We built the dikes since the 12th century. Add after that we experience floods every now and then. And then the people rebuild the dike even higher and stronger than it was before. And so the flood one after the other kind of made up our history,” says Hillen.
And, Hillen says, The Netherlands is willing to share its expertise to us.

The Netherlands flood-proofed a whole country where more than a quarter of the population lives below sea-level. They’re the ultimate example of spending money to save money. And they might have clues for how Boston can proactively deal with a changing climate.

Rising Tide: Boston Underwater is produced in partnership with The GroundTruth Project.

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