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OPINION

Suffolk Downs development agreement marks an opportunity for East Boston

Despite a flawed process that privileges private interests over the public good, East Boston won unprecedented concessions.

HYM Investment Group LLC's rendering of what Suffolk Downs could look like when the 161-acre site is fully built.
HYM Investment Group LLC's rendering of what Suffolk Downs could look like when the 161-acre site is fully built.The HYM Investment Group LLC

Suffolk Downs, the largest private development in Boston’s history, presents a generational opportunity for the city to right the wrongs of failed housing policy and build our middle class. After a years-long process, which included seven town halls hosted by my office to discuss the community’s priorities, the Boston Planning & Development Agency unanimously approved the project during a special meeting last week. Eastie residents fought for the project to be inclusive and reflective of our neighborhood, which resulted in significant achievements and set a floor to build on for the next 20 years.

Despite a flawed process that privileges private interests over the public good, East Boston won major concessions. We secured a $5 million stabilization fund, a neighborhood-specific acquisition program to create permanent affordable housing. This money, along with $800,000 in short-term rental relief, will be controlled by community members who will be able to decide how best to prevent displacement. This is particularly critical with the state’s eviction moratorium set to end in mid-October. Also as each building is completed, the developer will pay additional tens of thousands toward this stabilization fund.

Other affordable housing and jobs training funds from the project total over $50 million. One year ago, the developer claimed more than 13 percent affordable housing was impossible. The approved project will produce at least 20 percent income-restricted units — 13 percent on-site and another 7 percent elsewhere in East Boston — at lower income levels and with more family-sized units than initially proposed. Additionally, the site will be subject to a historic fair housing amendment when it becomes part of the city’s zoning code.

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These important victories are minimums that our community must continue to build on. As it stands, too much of the housing is still unattainable for many East Boston residents or mismatched with the needs of the community’s families. With every proposed amendment and every new building, the developers must go through a community process to show they are meeting their commitments. These will be opportunities for further negotiation. It is also true that to solve our housing crisis in its totality, we need more than just private contribution — we need drastic action from our state and federal governments and fundamental zoning reform to create the housing we truly need.

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Community advocacy also won notable changes in the economic opportunities provided by the development. Of the town halls I held last year, the one with the greatest attendance was about the local economy and good jobs. Through the advocacy that started at that meeting, developer HYM Investment Group agreed to a project labor agreement for the construction of the development. The agreement includes “$2 million to recruit and train neighborhood residents, women, minorities, and others who have long been underrepresented in Boston’s construction industry.” We’re creating a pipeline to the middle class for East Boston residents through expanded access to vocational training and priority in the hiring process.

Built-in accountability measures are key to ensuring promises will be kept. Parks on-site will be publicly owned or protected by conservation restriction, preventing the kind of future shrinkage through amendments to the site’s planned development area that we saw in the Seaport. Current energy code requirements are exceeded and future standards and codes will apply. The number of parking spaces on-site has been reduced and the transportation-related mitigation is less car dependent, which will ease the traffic burden on the neighborhood, with a requirement to continually review the need for parking and further reduce when possible. The jobs created will be held to the Boston Resident Jobs Policy. All future agreements must be reviewed by a community advisory group.

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East Boston has an activist heart. Whether it comes to Suffolk Downs, Logan Airport, or a proposed electrical substation, we will always push for justice and equality. We know we stand on the shoulders of many amazing activists, and one day future generations will stand on our shoulders. The concessions won for Suffolk Downs were accomplished despite a process in which developers write their own zoning regulations and wait for the city and community to respond. For the next 20 years, East Boston will be fighting to ensure our new neighborhood is green, inclusive, welcoming to all, and a bridge to economic opportunity.

Lydia Edwards is the Boston City Councilor for District 1.