How the mighty aspirations have fallen. I’m talking about you, Boston.
Six years ago, a bid to host the Olympics put forth a sweeping vision to transform an industrial eyesore next to the city tow lot into a sparkling neighborhood by the Red Line. Not long after that, Boston was on the short list of cities looking to land Amazon’s second corporate headquarters and the 50,000 jobs that were to come with it.
Neither the 2024 Summer Games nor Amazon’s HQ2 came to be, but the process of competing for them left us with amped up ambitions, a renewed sense of what is possible.
Our new attitude has been that Boston can change on a grand scale. We can be better, and we can create the city we always thought possible ― one rich with opportunity for everyone, not just the narrow class of elites who for decades brokered power.
Sadly, the pandemic has exacerbated entrenched inequities between rich and poor, Black, Latino, Asian and white. A lot of things must happen to change that. Putting a massive Amazon warehouse on what could be prime real estate isn’t one of them.
The new owners of Widett Circle — just south of downtown between South Boston and the Southeast Expressway ― are in serious talks with the all-powerful company to build a major shipping hub on the roughly 20-acre site, according to a Globe story by Tim Logan and Jon Chesto.
Massachusetts is already home to 20 Amazon distribution facilities, with 14 more in the works. Clearly, many of us love our Amazon Prime accounts, same-day delivery, and instant gratification shopping fixes, but at what cost?
This is not an anti-Amazon screed. The company has a major presence in Massachusetts and recently announced another in a series of expansions in Boston. It will occupy a new tower in the Seaport District, filling it with 3,000 good-paying jobs.
But an Amazon distribution center ― and its much-lower-paying jobs ― at Widett Circle is a far cry from what the city laid out in 2017 in its “Imagine Boston 2030” plan. Widett was touted as a potential transit-oriented neighborhood with retail and housing connecting South Boston to the South End.
Change is already taking place all around Widett, with development plans drawn up for the Fort Point Channel neighborhood and Dorchester Avenue in South Boston. Just across the Southeast Expressway, South Bay is finally coming into its own, evolving from a big box shopping strip into a live-work-play neighborhood with housing, restaurants, and better transit via the Fairmount Line.
A distribution center with delivery trucks coming and going 24-7 through local streets is hardly a way to make the neighborhood more livable, walkable, and bikable.
The timing of it all stinks, too.
Few people had even heard of Widett Circle before 2015. Making us think big about it will be part of Mayor Marty Walsh’s legacy. But with one foot out the door as he prepares to become President Biden’s labor secretary, Walsh is not in a position to stop lowered expectations from prevailing at Widett Circle. And it seems like the new owners of the property — a group led by developer Bill Keravuori — are capitalizing on the power vacuum at City Hall that comes with mayoral transitions.
Believe me, if Walsh were seeking a third term, no developer would suggest plunking a warehouse on Widett.
But here we are. Amazon is among four potential tenants of the site, including a life sciences firm and a biomanufacturing company. The pandemic has upended the commercial real estate market, making new condo and office towers difficult to finance as more people look to work from home long term.
An analysis done for the 2024 Summer Olympics bid estimated that turning Widett into a neighborhood would require more than $1 billion just to prep the site. Any developer would have to lean on government subsidies and investment to pull off such an ambitious mixed-used project.
But that’s how the city got the Seaport District, an albeit imperfect but new neighborhood that replaced a sea of pock-marked parking lots.
It’s clear that the owners of Widett are taking the easy way out with a sure thing — a company that will keep minting money as online retail takes off even more so after the pandemic. I get it. There is not only economic uncertainty involved in creating a vision for Widett but also a political gantlet.
It would have been simpler to develop Widett if the site also included the adjacent city-owned public works yard and tow lot off Frontage Road. But City Councilor Michelle Wu (now a candidate for mayor) has been raising concerns about the best use of those 18 acres. (For those keeping score at home, Bob Kraft once eyed that area as a potential site for a soccer stadium for the New England Revolution.)
The developer is only going to think as big on Widett Circle as the next mayor. Wu and any other contenders should care about the future of Widett and commit to transforming the neighborhood. And yes, that probably means involving taxpayer money.
City Council President Kim Janey, who will become the acting mayor once Walsh departs, said in a statement that development at Widett Circle must come “with a robust community process and achieves our goals for more equitable and sustainable growth.”
As for Amazon, Janey said a distribution center must also come with a commitment for “fair treatment and fair wages to the drivers and warehouse workers we all rely on, and building stronger pathways for Boston residents to careers at the forefront of innovation and technology.”
Creating something beyond a massive warehouse center is going to be complicated. But this is Boston. We are a city and region full of brilliant people who untangle the complicated on a daily basis. When we set our minds to it, we accomplish the seemingly impossible. I don’t have to reach far back for an example: When the pandemic struck, scientists at Moderna developed a vaccine stunningly fast.
If we can put a breakthrough vaccine in arms, we can put a great neighborhood in Widett. Let’s not forget who we are, how we got here, and what we’re capable of becoming.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.