The Case for Closing Boston's Logan Airport

Having an active airport next to a downtown area that's ready to densify has proven incompatible.
By Ethan Finlan | Nov 18, 2018 |
By Ethan Finlan | Nov 18, 2018 |

An interesting series of articles on LinkedIn has taken a look at the most congested airspace in the US — that which surrounds the New York metro area. One question that’s come up in this discussion, and in comments on one of these articles shared on The Market Urbanism Report’s Facebook group, is whether Logan International Airport in Boston is in the best possible location, or if it should be moved, or perhaps even simply shut down while allowing reliever airports to pick up the slack. Being a resident of the Boston area, I’ve decided to stop blowing up the threads with Logan-specific questions and analyze the New England air travel market myself.

So much as asking this question will seem odd to many Bostonians, because on the surface, a city couldn’t ask for a better airport than Logan. It’s just over four miles from the heart of downtown, and easily accessible from the city and its suburbs by road and mass transit alike. Further, runway expansion in the 1990s and early 2000s has allowed the once-cramped BOS to thrive, and the results speak for themselves. JetBlue Airways has built a powerhouse hub here, low-cost carriers have entered the airport, and, in concert with the advent of the 787, a plethora of flights to international markets have become available.

However, Logan’s close-in location comes at a cost, one which may be holding the region back more than helping it.

Consider the case of Amazon. Along with just about every other North American city, Boston has expressed interest in having the retail giant locate its second headquarters within its limits. (I’m critical of the use of targeted incentives to attract corporate headquarters, but for now will put aside those criticisms and look specifically at the question of a major corporation locating its headquarters in Boston.) The proposed site, at Suffolk Downs, is in close proximity to the airport. Look at the proposed designs for the area which Boston hopes will become Amazon’s second base. Does it look like a connected part of the urban fabric, as Amazon has publicly wished for, or does it resemble a freeway-oriented suburban office park?

On the opposite side of Logan is the Seaport District. Look at the difference in building heights just feet away in the traditional downtown core, and in the Seaport, the supposedly booming new neighborhood. It’s stark. As with the conceptual Amazon headquarters, the Seaport’s new buildings more closely resemble the sort of scattered mid-rises you see along a highway in a sprawling, auto-dependent region. Surface parking continues to take up much of the land. This largely defeats the purpose of turning a stagnant manufacturing center into a neighborhood populated with office and residential space in a major city. Creating intense bidding for scarce space is a recipe for exacerbating gentrification, and indeed, the Seaport’s scarce growth has created gains for a lucky few of the city’s residents.

Even the core of Boston finds itself unable to build up. The city’s tallest building is not in the central business district, but rather in the Back Bay. There’s nothing wrong with having a second downtown, but why is the downtown area itself seemingly stunted? It’s not for lack of demand. Recent proposals have been significantly cut back from their proposed heights.

Maximum heights in East Boston, the downtown area, and the Seaport are capped, and the answer is obvious: it’s because the airport is almost on downtown Boston’s front door. The Federal Aviation Administration must review all proposed structures in a given radius of an airport to determine whether or not it could impede a flight path. For comparison, imagine if a major airport for New York City were built just west of Lower Manhattan on the Hudson…

Here’s what that bottom right corner looks like, by the way:

Public Domain Pictures

To be sure, density doesn’t have to mean high vertical growth, but downtown Boston needs to have the flexibility to build up if it is to be on a parity with its Northeastern neighbors. Moreover, though, Logan’s location imposes an opportunity cost on the city even agnostic of building heights. Its close proximity to downtown cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means BOS is easy to get to, but on the other hand, it means that the land is very valuable. While sea level rise is an issue for the whole of the waterfront area, this is resolved by building seawalls and other mitigation measures which are currently being explored.

 If Logan were on the Shawmut Peninsula itself, it’d take up downtown, the South and West Ends, and the Common…

And that’s just the airport site itself. Taking the coastal metro area out of an international airport’s flight path would make a wide swath of land from Quincy to Lynn available for vertical development. Imagine what could happen to housing prices if much of that land were to become new housing?

This doesn’t mean other parts of Boston which are in need of affordable housing, such as Mattapan and Hyde Park, would go abandoned. By creating what would effectively be a third downtown for Boston, a hub would be created for new office space and the residential to compliment it, meaning that neighborhoods which are currently gentrifying would remain affordable. This is what happened in Miami when it built its Brickell neighborhood: Enclaves such as Little Havana and Little Haiti avoided the fate of, for instance, San Francisco’s Mission District and remained affordable, avoiding disruption to the communities which have had deep roots in those neighborhoods.

Civic leaders had high hopes that the Seaport would have become Boston’s Brickell. But that can’t happen with building heights kept low by the presence of a major international airport. Moving Logan would mean that not only the Seaport, but the land on which the airport itself sits, would be open to such development. Instead of Amazon having a spread-out campus, what if it could locate its headquarters on the current airport site?

There’s also the matter of the impact of an airport on its neighbors. The contentious history between Massport, Logan’s operator, and the neighborhood of East Boston is well documented, and numerous highly populated, poor neighborhoods such as Roslindale and Roxbury are in the landing path of the airport, creating noise pollution issues. While this is a fact of life in any area surrounding an airport, this is one reason why keeping airports far from high density areas is necessary.

 Logan’s impact on building throughout the city. Image Credit: Massport, The Boston Globe

When these factors are taken together, a compelling case forms for moving Logan to another location. Now, it could be argued that the Boston area has not been held back all that much by the presence of a close-in airport, given that areas outside the restriction zone such as the Back Bay, Cambridge, and the northern quarter of downtown have yet to be built out to their full potential. It’s also true that we don’t have it as bad as, say, San Diego, where the airport directly abuts the downtown area and the tallest building is 34 stories. And in terms of operations, the airport generally functions quite well.

Yet in this era of global cities, global competition, and skyrocketing housing costs, Boston needs to explore all options for enabling growth while keeping housing affordable (and that means increasing supply.) Closing and relocating Logan cannot be kept off the table in that vision. In my next post, I’ll look at the conditions which will need to be met in order to replace the airport.

[This article was originally published on Finlan's Medium profile.]