The mini-city that developers want to build on the site of the closed Suffolk Downs racetrack is set to win a key approval Thursday from the Boston Planning & Development Agency, setting in motion a massive project that would include 10,000 apartments and condominiums, millions of square feet of office buildings, and 40 acres of parks and open space.
When the project is complete in about 20 years, the 161 acres straddling East Boston and Revere will be home to a new neighborhood with a population rivaling that of the Back Bay.
But even as Thursday’s scheduled vote neared, developer HYM Investment Group, city officials, and housing activists this week were still negotiating finer points of the sprawling plan after three years of discussion and hundreds of community meetings. And on Tuesday, protesters dissatisfied with the amount of affordable housing the plan calls for demonstrated outside City Hall.
The last-days intensity is an indication of what’s at stake. This is the largest single development the BPDA has considered in decades, bringing with it the promise of new housing in a city that’s starved for it, but also fears that even more working-class residents will be squeezed out of East Boston.
“We’re trying to set the table correctly,” said HYM managing director Tom O’Brien. “We’ve put together a really thoughtful plan that we think will stand the test of time, and build a community where someday 15,000 people will live.”
If the BPDA board approves it, work would actually start first in Revere, where about one-third of the site is located. City councilors there threw their support behind the project two years ago. During the summer, HYM tore down stables that served the racetrack and began creating a new street grid near the Beachmont Blue Line station, where O’Brien said he hopes to break ground on apartment and office buildings early next year.
Phase two, dubbed “Belle Isle Square,” could start two years later with 11 buildings — about 1.4 million square feet in all — around the Suffolk Downs Blue Line station on the southern end of the site in East Boston. Over time, it would grow to cover 161 acres with 16.2 million square feet of housing and office space, about 40 acres of parks and open space, new streets and bike paths, and improvements to the adjacent Route 1A. All that is laid out in the master plan set to go before BPDA ― and then the Boston Zoning Commission ― with individual buildings later subject to more specific review.
Similar large-scale plans, particularly in the Seaport District, have been modified after their initial approval as real estate market conditions changed or a new developer took over. Critics say those revised plans often came at the expense of public benefits ― such as parks and civic space.
That won’t happen here, O’Brien promised. The longtime Boston developer, and his lead investor — Texas oil billionaire William Bruce Harrison — plan to build the project themselves, he said. City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston and has been a key player in negotiations between HYM, the city, and advocacy groups in the neighborhood, said she’ll be watching closely to make sure the developer keeps its promises.
“This isn’t like the Seaport,” she said. “The Seaport didn’t have a large, active, community right next to it. We do.”
Indeed, some community members made themselves heard this week ahead of the vote. About 50 housing and climate activists, many from East Boston, gathered on City Hall Plaza Tuesday to urge delaying the vote on Suffolk Downs until more affordable housing is incorporated into the plans. HYM is setting aside the mandated 13 percent of apartments — 930 units, in this case — for lower- and middle-income renters. It will also contribute $5 million toward affordable housing to be built elsewhere in East Boston.
But in a working-class and largely immigrant neighborhood where housing costs have surged in recent years, even so-called affordable rents are too high for many people, said Maria Carolina Ticona, an activist with the East Boston-based PUEBLO Coalition. Under current income levels, the average two-bedroom apartment would be set at $1,492 a month for a family of four earning just over $79,000 a year. In a neighborhood where families sometimes have to squeeze into a single bedroom, even that’s out of reach for many, Ticona said.
“Most people here don’t make $60,000 or $70,000 a year,” she said. “When the city says this will be affordable [at 70 percent of area median income] they’re not talking about us.”
PUEBLO finally got a meeting with Mayor Martin J. Walsh last week to press their case, Ticona said, but not until the hearing before the five-member BPDA board had already been scheduled. While such hearings are occasionally postponed, BPDA board members — four of whom are mayoral appointees — rarely vote to reject a project.
In a statement Tuesday, BPDA director Brian Golden hailed the agreements around job training, transportation, and climate resiliency that have been hammered out already at Suffolk Downs, and noted the 930 affordable units planned on the site, along with more than 400 that HYM will fund elsewhere, would amount to the biggest influx of affordable housing in Boston in decades.
“Over the past three years, we’ve closely collaborated with the residents of East Boston, local elected officials, and the many advocacy groups to improve the Suffolk Downs redevelopment project to better serve the neighborhood, and the city as a whole," Golden said. “This has included increasing the amount of affordable housing it will create and the range of income levels it will serve."
Edwards and East Boston activists acknowledge they’ve made progress in pushing HYM for more housing, and say they have no intention of stopping after Thursday’s vote. For his part, O’Brien said he’ll keep talking and meeting with the community, probably for another 20 years. But he’s also ready to start transforming the old horse track into something new.
“It’s empty. There’s nobody there,” he said. “We want to make it into a place where people want to live.”