Business

Olympic proposal adds to worries at Boston food complex

New Boston Food Market vendors are worried about being forced off of their valuable Boston real estate to make way for a stadium.
WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF
New Boston Food Market vendors are worried about being forced off of their valuable Boston real estate to make way for a stadium.

In the predawn hours, before commuters have brought traffic on nearby Interstate 93 to a standstill, workers in white butcher smocks cleave cuts of beef and chicken, fillet fresh cod, and cold-pack oysters and other seafood for many of New England’s top restaurants and supermarkets.

This is the New Boston Food Market, a cooperative of some two dozen meat and seafood wholesalers on the edge of South Boston.

The 20-acre site — with easy access to the highway and spectacular views of the downtown skyline — is largely unnoticed by passing motorists, but it has caught the eye of the group trying to bring the Summer Olympics to Boston in 2024 as a possible site for a 60,000-seat stadium.

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Though the site is barely a long javelin throw from Boston’s more celebrated business neighborhood, the Innovation District, meatpackers and fishmongers worry that their livelihood is now at risk because their jobs lack the cachet of tech entrepreneurs.

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“Maybe we need to rename ourselves,” said Marion Kaiser, chief executive of Aquanor Marketing Inc., a seafood wholesaler: “New Boston Innovation Center.”

Monday marked the deadline for the local organizing committee to submit its proposal to the US Olympic Committee for how Boston would host the 2024 games; the city is among four US finalists.

Even though an Olympic stadium on their property is far from a sure thing, Kaiser and her neighbors are already gripped by a sense that powerful interests have seized control of their fate — again. The food market was evicted from Quincy Market in 1969, when Boston turned the old “meatpackers row” into the shopping strip it is today.

The New Boston Food Market also finds itself the bullseye of a wide area targeted for development.

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On one side of its Widett Circle property is Boston’s municipal tow lot, where Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Revolution, reportedly is considering building a soccer stadium.

On an abutting parcel to the east is a cold storage facility that Boston-based Celtic Recycling wants to turn into a transfer station, raising fear of contamination among the food sellers.

“You look next door at the Seaport and all the new construction is nice for a lot of folks, but I’m not sure how good it is for the guys on the wharf,” said Bobby McGrath, the food market’s operations supervisor. “We can feel the redevelopment creeping closer and closer.”

The food market is a bustling industry in its own right. Every day, tens of thousands of pounds of meat, poultry, and seafood move through its warehouses, and chances are most restaurant patrons in Boston have dug into a ribeye steak or savored fresh lobster supplied by one of its vendors. It employs about 700 workers and anticipates that revenues in 2014 will approach $1 billion.

The 20-acre site of New Boston Food Market, where meats and seafood are prepared for restaurants and supermarkets.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The 20-acre site of New Boston Food Market, where meats and seafood are prepared for restaurants and supermarkets.

Though surrounded by other dowdy industrial sites, their second home is now hugely valuable; the assessed value alone of the three connected parcels owned by New Boston Food Market is $21 million.

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The Olympics group, which calls itself Boston 2024, could make an offer for the property, but a sale would require unanimous approval of the cooperative’s 18 shareholders, said Jeffrey Corin, president of New Boston Food Market.

His snap assessment is that the shareholders would not be eager to sell.

As a private entity, the Olympics group lacks the authority to force out the wholesalers if they refuse to sell. However, the city could take the properties by eminent domain and allow Olympic organizers to build an arena there, as it did 45 years ago when it cleared the meatpackers out of Quincy Market.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said it is too early to discuss a land taking, with so many hurdles for Boston to clear to be named the Olympic host.

The Boston 2024 committee includes some of the city’s most prominent business leaders, including construction magnate John Fish, Putnam Investments head Robert Reynolds, former Massachusetts economic development chief Dan O’Connell, and Bain Capital managing director and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca.

The committee declined to discuss the Widett Circle property and its owners’ concerns.

“No final decisions have been made with respect to any of the venues for the proposed 2024 Games in Boston,” Boston 2024 executive vice president Erin Murphy Rafferty said in a statement.

“Should Boston 2024 move on to the next phase, there will be a full community review process before any final decisions are made. We are committed to working with any potentially impacted neighbors in a full and transparent manner if and when we move forward in the process.”

If the city decided to take the vendors’ second home, too, there would be little they could do besides sue for maximum compensation, said Joel Faller, an attorney with McLaughlin Brothers in Boston, a law firm specializing in eminent domain.

“A land owner having their property taken by eminent domain can challenge whether it’s for a public purpose, but it’s very likely that this would survive a legal challenge,” Faller said. “The courts give great deference to public authorities to determine what’s a public necessity.”

New Boston Food Market vendors are accustomed to being asked about their property. Private developers periodically approach the vendors about selling, Corin and Kaiser said, but the answer is always the same: Not interested.

And in 2001 the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority considered taking the land by eminent domain to build a warehouse for storing trains but quickly dropped the idea when then-mayor Thomas M. Menino objected.

“We’re usually able to shrug it off,” said food market property manager John Kennedy. “But this time feels different.”

Boston is one of four US cities — along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington — on the US Olympic Committee’s short list of prospective hosts for 2024. The committee is expected to pick one early next year but could still decide not to bid for the Games at all.

Even if Boston were to gain the US Olympic Committee’s backing, it would still need to beat out several cities on other continents in an international selection process that will produce a winner in 2017 — seven years before the Games. In all that time, Olympic planners could pick another site for the stadium.

Corin, who is also president of Robbins Beef Co., said even the uncertainty about the future of the property makes it difficult to plan for upkeep and new projects.

Corin said the New Boston Food Market should be included in any talks about the city’s Olympic bid.

“I think we are being left out a little bit, and I don’t know why,” Corin said. “Even if they don’t have anything to say, it would be nice to be involved in the process. It’s a little disconcerting.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.