Gaming regulators last year ruled that Boston wouldn’t get the right to vote on Wynn Resorts’ proposed casino complex planned for land in Everett, right over the city line.
But that hasn’t stopped Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration from using a little-publicized commission that controls road changes to exert its influence over the process.
Most of the gamblers who would flock to Wynn’s $1.7 billion casino would need to use Boston streets to get there, through the tangle of traffic that is Sullivan Square in Charlestown. Wynn wants to make a series of improvements to make those trips easier. But those upgrades can’t happen without approval from the city’s Public Improvement Commission, a panel of city department heads with authority over city roads and rights-of-way.
Gambling regulators required Wynn to submit an application to this commission within three months of its license award in November, a mandate the Nevada company claims it met when it began the application process Jan. 30.
Boston officials, however, argue that Wynn merely dropped off a few papers — documents they say don’t constitute a complete application. The city has sued the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, in part arguing that the license should be rescinded because Wynn did not meet the application deadline.
As that suit makes it way through the courts, city officials are making it tough for Wynn to get started: They are building their case, through two strongly written letters sent to the gaming commission in recent weeks, that the casino company has fallen short of the license requirement.
Transportation commissioner Gina Fiandaca, one of four Public Improvement Commission members, spelled out in those letters the ways that the documents fail to provide basic information needed to start the review and don’t convey any concrete plan.
A spokeswoman for the gaming commission said that it is still reviewing the letters between Wynn and Fiandaca’s office. City officials declined to comment.
Wynn’s representatives, meanwhile, say they’ve tried to set up a meeting with Boston transportation officials to discuss the issue but have had no luck.
“Once again, the mayor is just trying to throw up any roadblock he can to force Wynn to give more money to the city or somehow pay more homage to the city,” said Richard McGowan, a casino expert at Boston College. “The mayor is basically saying, ‘You really have slighted Boston [but] we’re not going to be shunted aside.’ ”
Larry DiCara, a development lawyer at Nixon Peabody and a former city councilor, said a mayor could theoretically use the Public Improvement Commission to block a project if it can be proven that doing so is in the public’s interest. “The mayor,” DiCara said, “can make life very difficult [for Wynn].”
Wynn intentionally tried to limit Boston’s authority over the project, in part by reaching a deal to buy MBTA land next door to ensure the casino’s main driveway doesn’t cross into Boston.
But soon after the company received the sole Boston-area license in November, Walsh started waging his assault. After the administration sued the gambling commission, Walsh’s representatives also refused last month to show up for a state-orchestrated mediation session, designed to help Wynn address traffic issues in Charlestown for a crucial environmental permit.
With the mayor’s latest actions, Charlestown resident and Wynn opponent Lynne Levesque said she’s more hopeful now than she was at the beginning of the year that the casino can be blocked.
“I think he’s doing a really good job of what appears to be a multipronged strategy,” said Levesque.
Wynn spokesman Michael Weaver said a failure by the Public Improvement Commission to advance Wynn’s Sullivan Square improvements simply delays traffic relief work that the firm plans to subsidize, not the casino project itself.
Weaver said Wynn has proposed $10.9 million worth of changes in need of the city commission’s approval — upgrades such as new traffic signals, widened roads, reconstructed sidewalks, a reconfigured entrance from Cambridge Street, and a new bus-only lane. These changes are aimed at meeting another requirement in the casino license: that Wynn mitigate its traffic impact.
The company plans to move forward with construction preparation while it works through the city approval process, Weaver said.
William Sinnott, a former corporation counsel in the Menino administration, said that it can be tough to use the Public Improvement Commission for political means. In order to deny a project, the commission would have to demonstrate a clear potential harm to public safety, the environment, or a neighborhood’s well-being — so the city can defend its decision in court if it is sued.
But that does not mean the commission’s approvals are guaranteed.
“If it appears that Wynn is unwilling or unable to satisfy righteous, defensible requirements that the Public Improvement Commission levies on them, then they will not get approval,” said Sinnott, who now works at Donoghue Barrett & Singal.
Wynn has to cooperate as well, he said, and that potential relationship seems to be off to a rocky start, based on this disagreement about whether Wynn has even applied yet.
“It sure seems to me that they did not conform to the general expectations of the Public Improvement Commission,” Sinnott said.
Former state transportation secretary Fred Salvucci, who opposes Wynn’s project, said that because Boston would have the bigger traffic impact than Everett, Walsh may have some power to stop the casino.
Members of the Public Improvement Commission, he said, “will have to exercise judgment [and] the judgment has to reflect whether they believe Sullivan Square can function [with casino traffic]. Any reasonable person can conclude that, no, it can’t.”
The end result? Wynn now faces some variables that need to be resolved: that pending lawsuit from Boston and two others from Somerville and Revere, the uncertain position with the Public Improvement Commission, and a big delay in the state environmental permit. Wynn has already put off its estimated opening date, from 2017 to 2018.
McGowan, the gambling expert at Boston College, still expects the casino project will get done, despite Walsh’s objections: “Eventually, I think [Wynn] is going to say, ‘Let’s get this over with and give him some additional money,’ and Walsh will declare victory.”