One of the biggest development projects Boston has ever seen is poised to move toward approval after city officials reached an agreement with the federal government to ensure public meetings and documents are accessible in multiple languages.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency on Wednesday scheduled a public hearing for later this month -- when it’s likely there’ll be a board vote -- on plans to turn the shuttered Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston into a mini-city’s worth of housing, office buildings, and retail space. The Sept. 24 special meeting will be devoted entirely to Suffolk Downs instead of the usual monthly agenda, which can include dozens of projects.
“This way, there will be ample time for community members to participate and for the development team and BPDA staff members to respond to questions,” said BPDA spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin. “We know there’s a lot of interest.”
The BPDA is set to resolve a federal civil rights complaint, filed in February by the Boston group Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of two community organizations. It alleged that BPDA meetings about Suffolk Downs failed to take into account the variety of languages spoken in East Boston and thus excluded native Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese speakers from the review process.
The administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the developer, HYM Investment Group, maintain that they held numerous meetings in Spanish and translated documents into several languages throughout the years-long planning process. But in recent months, the city has been working out an agreement with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that will establish language rules for all large projects going forward. That deal ― set to be approved by the BPDA board on Thursday — will require translation and other services in languages commonly spoken in neighborhoods around the city,
That’s a good thing, said Lauren Sampson, a staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, and highlights the need for residents of the rapidly diversifying city to understand planning and development in their primary language.
“We’re really happy to see this agreement is not limited to Suffolk Downs but instead addresses language access more broadly,” Sampson said. “Suffolk Downs was certainly not the only example of BPDA’s failure to provide access.”
But it did provide a good example. In February, after the complaint was filed, HUD investigators met with dozens of East Boston residents, Sampson said, to hear — through interpreters — about their struggles to get information about a project that stands to transform a huge swatch of their neighborhood.
“I think that had a real impact,” Sampson said. “They were able to see firsthand how this affects people.”
McGilpin said the agreement with HUD wasn’t directly tied to the decision to vote on Suffolk Downs this month, and noted that the BPDA held virtual community meetings on the project earlier this summer, which were translated into Spanish and Arabic. Either way, the potential vote later this month would green-light an enormous project, with 10,000 housing units and 5.2 million square feet of office space on 161 acres in Boston and Revere. It will take decades to build.
As the project has wound through public review, much of the debate has centered on climate resiliency and affordable housing. HYM has designed roughly 40 acres of parks and other open space on the site, some of which can double as overflow areas for storm surges, and promises to set 930 units at affordable prices while contributing $5 million to fund affordable housing elsewhere in East Boston.
After years of meetings, and then months of delay amid the coronavirus pandemic, HYM’s managing director, Tom O’Brien, said in a statement Wednesday that the company is eager to finally get started.
“We will continue to work with the community and the City of Boston throughout the public review process," O’Brien said. "And we look forward to moving ahead towards building a new future at Suffolk Downs.”