By Emily Carson
BU News Service
Story published via a special arrangement with The Bay State Banner.
EAST BOSTON — The public saw for the first time last week plans to create a new neighborhood on the 161-acre grounds of Suffolk Downs in East Boston. If approved, the redevelopment may take up to two decades to complete, and the developer said it will generate $56.8 million annually in new tax revenue for the City of Boston.
The plans for the site of the former thoroughbred race track were released in the first neighborhood-wide public meeting last Tuesday night in the auditorium of East Boston High School. While attendees seemed receptive to the openness and transparency of the plan, questions arose about housing and gentrification.
State Rep. Adrian Madaro, state Sen. Joseph Boncore and City Councilor Lydia Edwards hosted the meeting and answered questions along with representatives from real estate developer HYM Investment Group LLC. The developer is a Boston-based company whose projects include the new Government Center garage and the redevelopment of Northpoint.
Suffolk Downs, originally a horse racing track built in 1935, has been set up for redevelopment for years, and HYM purchased the property in May 2017. The track ceased regular racing in 2014, but held individual racing and events like food truck festivals up until mid-September.
The new project proposes 11 million square feet of new construction, including a new mixed-use walkable neighborhood with local retail, units residences, offices, medical labs, hotels and publicly-accessible open space. The project would create an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 full-time jobs and around 14,000 construction jobs, according to HYM’s Managing Director Tom O’Brien and Director of Development Doug Manz.
O’Brien said he estimates that the whole project will be completed in phases over a period of 15 to 20 years. Suffolk Downs and Beachmont, the two MBTA stops in the neighborhood, will be the retail parks and gateways to the transit-oriented neighborhood, and the neighborhood will be built out from there. The Suffolk Downs site could also potentially house the new northeast office for Amazon, if the search for the company’s new headquarters is narrowed down to Boston by the end of 2018.
HYM will invest $220 million into creating parks, streets and other onsite features, as well as over $50 million into offsite traffic mitigation. This includes projects like adding a third lane to Route 1A, and also running and maintaining shuttles within the neighborhood, which would run from the two MBTA Blue Line stations. They would also potentially introduce connectors to other T lines, including a connector to the Seaport district and a connector to South Station.
Mary Berninger, a nearby resident, was hopeful before the presentation that there might be more than the maximum 930 units of affordable housing and 715 units of senior housing promised in the presentation.
“Clearly there’s no room for discussion because they’ve done the figures. So we’ll go forward and we’ll continue to hope that other areas around here step up and do their part [to add more senior and affordable housing] because right now, they’re not doing it,” said Berninger.
Other concepts put forth in the meeting included resiliency, such as planning for storm surges caused by climate change and rising sea levels. Areas around the neighborhood, such as lower-level garages and a sunken park amphitheater, will function as water basins and drainage sites during heavy flooding periods. HYM is also aiming to reduce emissions in the building process and make the buildings sustainable: 50 percent of the buildings will be LEED Gold certified or better and 50 percent will be LEED Silver.
The meeting took place on the day the Draft Environmental Impact Report and Draft Project Impact Report had been filed by HYM and released by the Boston Planning and Development Agency. The impact report includes studies of how aspects of the project, such as infrastructure building and traffic, will affect the environment around the site, including wetlands, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
“Redevelopment of the project site provides a unique opportunity to create additional housing, spur economic development, mitigate climate change in the area and improve connections between several adjoining neighborhoods,” the report states.
John Walkey, a waterfront initiative coordinator with the Chelsea-based environmental justice organization GreenRoots, said he has been following the development of the project and remains unswayed by the presentation’s promises of affordable housing. He is concerned by both the environmental and social impacts of the plan, and echoes Berninger’s sentiments.
“Housing should be a human right, and treating it like supply and demand is just underselling the issue,” Walkey said at the meeting. “It’s really going to change the fabric of the neighborhood and hasten the demise of an immigrant neighborhood.”
Though HYM has held more than 300 meetings in the community with different neighborhood groups, and even one-on-one meetings, this is the first unveiling of the plan at a public neighborhood meeting. Councilor Edwards said she is pleased the meeting took place.
“It’s an opportunity to start off a positive conversation about where we want to go, but also to make sure that we’re developing a really good, open, transparent relationship with HYM, as this is a long-term project,” said Edwards.
HYM’s O’Brien expressed satisfaction with the meeting overall.
“I thought the meeting went really well,” he said. “People listened to our proposal, they listened to the details. There weren’t that many questions, so hopefully that means we’ve answered people’s questions for the most part.”
The process is currently under review by the BPDA. The public comment period concludes Dec. 17. The next meeting for the project is on Tuesday, Oct. 16 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Suffolk Downs Clubhouse.