Business

Deal to buy Suffolk Downs could spur development there

The Suffolk Downs Festival of Racing included three days of racing in fall 2015.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Suffolk Downs Festival of Racing included three days of racing in fall 2015.

A prominent local developer has agreed to buy Suffolk Downs in East Boston, a deal that could turn the down-on-its-luck horse track into a new neighborhood that transforms the northern corner of the city.

A group led by former Boston Redevelopment Authority chief Tom O’Brien has the 161-acre site under contract, according to people familiar with the situation, and a sale could close by summer. The agreement is preliminary and could fall through, the people said, but it’s the clearest sign yet of a new start for Suffolk after plans to build a casino there died in 2014.

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Neither O’Brien nor Suffolk partners would comment on the agreement, and no sale price was available. But observers say the site, which sits between two Blue Line stops and crosses partially into Revere, has enormous development potential for housing, retail, and open space.

“You look at it and say, ‘Wow, that is an unbelievable opportunity,’ ” said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a real estate trade group. “You have enough critical mass to make something really great there.”

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With business at the horse track dwindling for years, Suffolk principal owners Richard Fields and Joe O’Donnell saw a casino as their future. After multiple partnerships and public votes, the casino plan was finally shot down in 2014, when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission awarded a Boston-area license to Wynn Resorts in Everett. Since then, the track has hosted simulcasting and just a handful of races each summer, while the owners figured out their next step. Meanwhile, talk has picked up in recent days that the nearby Wonderland dog track, which is owned by largely the same group of investors, also has found a buyer.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Friday that redevelopment of Suffolk Downs has been a long time coming. He was hesitant to prescribe what should be built there but acknowledged he would support affordable housing on the site.

Suffolk Downs.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Suffolk Downs.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that. Again, I don’t want to limit it to one thing,” Walsh said. “I want to have the East Boston community help us decide their vision for that.”

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State Representative Adrian Madaro of East Boston said many in the neighborhood have high hopes for a new start at the old track.

“It’s such an important piece of land, such an attractive developable lot,” Madaro said. “I hope whatever will materialize there will be a direct result of a robust community dialogue.”

With development pushing out to the edges of the city, planners have had a circle around Suffolk ever since the casino plan fell through. In November, the Boston Planning & Development Agency identified Suffolk Downs as one of five areas around Boston with potential for large-scale development, citing its good Blue Line access and proposing a “mixed-use residential area with signature open space and other destinations.”

That’s the sort of thing O’Brien has developed before.

His firm, Boston-based HYM Investment Group, was a key player in NorthPoint, the 45-acre former rail yard in East Cambridge where thousands of housing units and office buildings are planned around a large park. HYM spent five years as lead developer on the project, updating plans, winning new permits, and negotiating with the MBTA over a new Lechmere Green Line station before the project was sold to a new investor in 2015. HYM also worked with New Balance on permitting for the shoemaker’s Boston Landing campus in Brighton and is launching work on a series of towers at the Government Center Garage.

Like those projects, Somerville’s Assembly Row, and the South End’s Ink Block, Suffolk Downs is big enough to build the sort of destination that can transform an entire neighborhood around it, Begelfer said. While he wasn’t privy to O’Brien’s plans at Suffolk, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what happens there, too.

“Because of the way it has been used, that’s something people don’t even think about,” Begelfer said. “But if you look to the future, I think you’re going to see a very dynamic live, work, play environment that’s going to be extremely attractive.”

Weeds in a crumbling parking lot next to Wonderland Park.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Weeds in a crumbling parking lot next to Wonderland Park.

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan. Shirley Leung can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @leung.
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