It was once pitched as the centerpiece of Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, then as a mini-city of its own, with millions of square feet of condominium and office towers.
Now, Widett Circle could instead become home to a giant Amazon distribution center.
The new owners of Widett — just south of downtown between South Boston and the Southeast Expressway ― are in serious talks with the e-commerce giant about building a shipping hub on the roughly 20-acre site, according to several people familiar with the discussions. A deal has not been finalized, and other potential tenants are still in the mix. But Amazon, eager to build its first major distribution center in the city, is considered a strong contender.
If the company lands at Widett Circle, it would reflect a major shift in the vision for the area. Not that long ago, it was touted by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other civic leaders as a prime location for an Olympic stadium and, longer-term, a vibrant mixed-use development that could become a new gateway to the city.
“The developers promised a new neighborhood, but it sounds like they may be going back on their word,” said Michael Flaherty, an at-large city councilor who lives in South Boston. “Just as I wasn’t convinced that an Olympic stadium is the highest and best use, I’m not convinced that an Amazon distribution center is the highest and best use of the site.”
Long the overlooked home of meatpackers and seafood processors, Widett Circle gained prominence as a development site when Boston business leaders launched their Olympics bid.
After that effort fell apart in July 2015, Walsh continued to push his ambitious vision for the parcel. Several developers explored deals with the New Boston Food Market, a cooperative that controlled 20 acres in the heart of Widett Circle. Last June, a group led by developer Bill Keravuori closed on a $125 million purchase of the food market property, and signed a deal to buy a five-acre parcel next door as well, part of the broader Widett Circle area.
But developing Widett would be complex. Road access is limited. It’s on low-lying land with the potential to flood. The Boston Planning & Development Agency owns a small piece of land in the area, as does Amtrak. And state transportation officials have wanted to use the tract for railyards because of its proximity to South Station. (They’re in discussions with Keravuori’s group to acquire a portion of Widett Circle.)
“The MassDOT and MBTA have long considered Widett Circle critical to their Commuter, Regional and Urban Rail aspirations,” state transportation undersecretary Scott Bosworth said in a statement. “We appreciate the land owners’ willingness to work with us.”
Other potential uses for the land ― such as a shipping hub ― could be simpler to pull off than a large mixed-use complex. A big warehouse could better exist alongside a railyard, and wouldn’t require as much new infrastructure. Trucks have long come and gone from the food distributors there.
But Amazon’s involvement could make the politics involved far more complicated.
Labor groups here and across the country have stepped up their campaign against the company in recent months, citing concerns about pay and working conditions in Amazon facilities.
Dozens of workers, activists, and local politicians protested on Monday outside a massive sorting center Amazon is building in North Andover. In December, the Boston City Council, at the urging of the Teamsters Local 25 union, unanimously approved a resolution calling on Amazon to improve wages and working conditions should the company open distribution centers in Boston. And on Thursday, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 posted an anti-Amazon message on the union’s prominent billboard along the Southeast Expressway.
“We just put it up,” said business manager Lou Antonellis in an e-mail. “And we’ll keep it up as we fight to keep them out of Boston.”
Amazon has been pushing deeper into dense urban areas, as it expands same-day and next-day delivery. In the last few years it has opened shipping centers in Dedham, Everett, and the former Necco candy factory in Revere. But searches for a sizable location in Boston itself have been stymied by high costs, the tight supply of warehouse space, and neighborhood concerns about traffic and other issues.
Last year, the company reached an agreement to lease a 90,0000-square-foot warehouse on Dorchester Avenue in Andrew Square — just across the railroad tracks from Widett — but backed off when the BPDA said it didn’t fit with longer-term plans for the area. A warehouse at Widett would likely be far larger; in Taunton, for example, Amazon operates a 350,000-square-foot distribution center on 20 acres.
A spokeswoman for the BPDA said the agency has started talking with developers about plans for Widett Circle, but had no comment on the prospect of an Amazon distribution center. Amazon, too, had little to say.
“We weigh a variety of factors when deciding where to develop future sites to best serve customers,” said spokeswoman Emily Hawkins. “However, we have a policy of not commenting on speculation or our future road map.”
And Amazon isn’t the only interested party.
In a statement, Keravuori said his group is “considering a range of uses,” including “light industrial, life sciences and transit,” and is talking with city and state officials about what might work.
“We are currently studying what is feasible to achieve at the site,” he said.
Rob Griffin, head of capital markets at real estate firm Newmark, who is working with developers on the project, said negotiations have narrowed to four potential users. He declined to name them, but said two are logistics companies — a broad category that includes warehousing and shipping and could describe Amazon — one is a life sciences firm, and one would build a biomanufacturing plant.
“There is no deal in place with anyone at this point,” Griffin said. “We’re entertaining all four offers.”
A year into a pandemic that has lessened the appetite to build office towers and urban apartments, Griffin said it’s no surprise that logistics and life sciences companies are the most likely tenants. Both sectors are red-hot, he said, and use similar kinds of space: large, low-slung buildings that would fit in a place like Widett Circle.
“There is a shortage of logistics space in Boston, and biomanufacturing is booming,” Griffin said. “Both, we think, would be a great solution.”
Developer John Hynes, who had previously worked with the food wholesalers, said the Widett site presents challenges for a mixed-use project because of its inaccessibility.
“The only way that works is with a massive infrastructure investment to create access points in and out of the site,” Hynes said. “There’s only one way in and one way out. That’s OK if you’re trucking, because truckers know what to do. If you’re shopping, forget about it.”
Since the Olympics bid, Widett Circle has captured the imagination of many people in the city, given its proximity to downtown, the highway, and the MBTA’s Red Line. One of the more ambitious concepts included constructing a massive deck over the railroad tracks, on which a large mixed-used project could be built, or expanding the site to include the city public works yard that now sits immediately to the north.
After all the hype, it’s possible Widett Circle could wind up hosting a warehouse and a railyard.
“The need for industrial space is absolutely critical and there’s huge demand for having Amazon within inner Boston,” said Tamara Small, chief executive of real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts. “At the same time, I think it needs to be part of a bigger picture. We need to make sure that’s not the only thing that goes into that area after all these years of analysis.”