Following more than six hours of discussion, the Boston Planning & Development Agency early Friday gave a crucial green light to the massive Suffolk Downs redevelopment project, which will eventually bring 10,000 new homes, millions of square feet of office buildings, and 40 acres of parks to the former horse track straddling East Boston and Revere.
The unanimous vote came at the at the end of a meeting that began Thursday evening.
“I don’t know what could be better,” said BPDA board member Mike Monahan. “This, in my opinion, is a no-brainer.”
That opinion, though, was far from unanimous among the dozens of people who called in or used Zoom to participate in the marathon meeting.
Some spoke in support of the project, including a series of union construction workers — many of them East Boston residents. They cited the huge number of jobs the $8 billion project will create, and particularly agreements by developer HYM Investment Group to hire and train young East Boston residents for construction work on a project that will likely take 20 years to build.
Many others, however, spoke against it. Most cited surging rents in East Boston and worried that the largely high-end development on the 161-acre site will accelerate displacement of renters from the traditionally working-class and immigrant neighborhood. People ranging from high school students to senior citizens — some speaking in Spanish through translators — called in to voice fears of being priced out of their homes and pushed further from their schools, jobs, health care, and community.
“What you are hearing tonight is Eastie residents trying to place this project in context,” said Brittany Thomas, a staffer at East Boston-based community radio station Zumix. “Housing is at the crux of our neighborhood’s well-being. This is the kind of project that defines a city, and how we choose to use [this site] says everything about who we prioritize."
The lengthy meeting — the largest and most contentious public hearing the BPDA has held remotely since halting in-person meetings in March — was not without its glitches. There were dog barks in the background and breaks in the action to switch translators. (In response to a federal civil rights complaint by neighborhood groups, the meeting was simultaneously translated in Spanish and Arabic.) But there also were powerful moments, such as the remarks by a woman who emphasized her fear of losing her home in East Boston, even as her phone kept cutting out and children could be heard clamoring in the background.
“We need affordable housing ... now,” she said in a loud voice. “We are in a crisis. We need affordable housing ... now.”
That housing — how much and how affordable — was at the center of negotiations over the project that spanned three years. Ultimately, HYM agreed to build the city-mandated 13 percent of affordable units — 930 in all — on site, and contribute $5 million to fund affordable housing elsewhere in East Boston. But critics argue even those units — which on average would cost $1,492 a month for a two-bedroom apartment for a household of four earning $79,000 a year — are out of reach for the typical family in East Boston, where median household income is $53,000.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who was deeply involved in negotiations over the project, said she’ll keep pushing for more funding from HYM, and to direct that funding to East Boston. Just this week, she said, the developer agreed to contribute $400,000 toward an emergency rental relief fund to help people that will launch this fall as many tenants face the threat of eviction in the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s also pushing for ongoing city review of the project, to ensure HYM lives up to its promises and to adapt public benefits as needed.
“What we’re fighting for right now is a floor, not a ceiling,” she said.
And while the vote set the ground rules for Suffolk Downs, the project has more approvals yet to go. It will go to the Zoning Commission later this fall; a positive vote there would allow construction to start on the Revere portion of the site early next year, near the Beachmont MBTA station. A second phase, in East Boston near the Suffolk Downs station, could start two years after that. Individual buildings there will need BPDA review as well.
But after three years of planning, and a meeting that lasted into Friday morning, HYM managing director Tom O’Brien said he’s ready to get started.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to create this new neighborhood from the ground up," O’Brien said in a statement after the vote. "We look forward to moving ahead towards building a new future at Suffolk Downs.”