On Long Island, the largest of the Boston Harbor Islands, it’s easy to understand the attraction ― a place so close yet so removed from the city’s rhythms, surrounded by a shimmering sea and boasting stunning views of the skyline. It doesn’t take long for a visitor to ask: Why would Boston officials limit use of this valuable resource to people who are homeless or in recovery?
One can’t help but ask that question after a team of Globe journalists recently visited the 225-acre island, which sits in the center of the harbor and has been closed to the public since 2014 when the bridge connecting it to the mainland was condemned (and later demolished).
Long Island, owned by the city since 1885, is one of 34 islands and peninsulas that form a national and state park in Boston Harbor. There have been efforts over the years to bring more development to the islands, such as housing, a hotel, a Patriots training facility, and even a casino.
Today, it’s home to about a dozen decaying buildings that until eight years ago served people who had nowhere else to go — from unwed expectant mothers and tuberculosis patients early on, to homeless people and those seeking addiction treatment in more recent years. The island is only actively used today by philanthropist Jack Connors, who runs a free summer camp there for Boston middle schoolers.
Since the island’s closure, Boston homelessness and opioid crises have worsened, most notably in an area by Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard where people live on the streets and openly use drugs. Despite efforts by Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston to take down tents and secure transitional housing, a humanitarian crisis continues as neighbors and business owners call for action. The reopening of Long Island will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars, but if it is to be an option at all, the planning needs to start.
Then there is the question of transportation: Are island-based treatment services viable without a bridge? The City of Quincy has vociferously opposed building a new span, citing traffic that would go through its streets to reach the island. Will ferries be sufficient?
As daunting as it might seem to rebuild the Long Island facilities, land is precious in Boston, and developers are always on the hunt. A mutually beneficial partnership is a possibility.
“This is a great opportunity for a really creative team … a team that thinks big,” said Tom Glynn, who worked with developers when he ran the Massachusetts Port Authority and later when he oversaw the planning of Harvard’s Allston research campus. “There aren’t that many big parcels left.”
Selling some development rights on the island might offset the enormous cost of constructing a new bridge and restoring buildings. Over the decades, developers have eyed Long Island, including some guy named Donald Trump, who in the 1990s wanted to build a casino there. That idea didn’t get very far with then-mayor Tom Menino.
Still, there are formidable financial challenges to building on an island, even more so in an economy with rising interest rates and commercial real estate in flux. Perhaps a hotel could go there, but how many people would want to be on a city island in the winter?
Tony Pangaro — the retired Millennium Partners executive who helped engineer Downtown Crossing’s rebirth — says you can’t think of Long Island as just another piece of waterfront real estate.
“The question I would ask: What’s unique about it? What should you do there you can’t do anywhere else?” Pangaro said.
Using that lens, a recovery campus would be a unique use because nobody wants a homeless shelter, transitional housing, or drug treatment center in their backyard. The next question becomes: What’s compatible with that?
Pangaro can see a public park and an aquatic research institute — perhaps something to do with climate change, fish farming, or ocean habitats — a venue that would benefit from being surrounded by water.
Kathy Abbott, chief executive of the nonprofit Boston Harbor Now, welcomes ideas that would draw more people to the islands. Think academic research institute, a retreat center, a cultural venue, or hostel.
Abbott, who last visited Long Island several years ago, said it has a lot to offer.
“It’s got some beautiful beaches, wonderful wetlands, terrific woodlands,” said Abbott, who started her career as a park ranger on the harbor islands.
But now we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. I’m not convinced the Wu administration has decided what it will do with Long Island. One analysis, done in 2021 during the last months of the Marty Walsh administration, pegged the cost of building restoration at more than $500 million. Wu has said a new bridge could cost upwards of $300 million. That’s heading toward $1 billion, money that could pay for many years of treatment programs and housing off-island, with fewer complications.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said Long Island remains on the table as a way to alleviate the opioid crisis, but the administration is focused on immediate solutions. Chief among its strategies are housing for people in a half dozen sites across the city ― including hotels and in cottages on the grounds of Shattuck hospital ― and decentralizing services so that people won’t congregate at Mass. and Cass.
Long Island is often cited as a solution because finding a site for a recovery campus on the mainland will be difficult, given the scarcity of real estate and stigma around substance use and homelessness. Still, Ojikutu does not believe that should be the driving reason for reopening Long Island.
“I don’t think that we in this administration are looking at this as just a place to where we can move the problem,” she said. “There is no one solution here. Long Island is not in any way, shape, or form — no matter how it plays out — it’s not going to solve this problem.”
Then there’s the medical problem. People who frequent Mass. and Cass often need emergency health care, and a ferry is a lot slower than an ambulance.
“It creates quite a concern from a medical standpoint that we’re trying to work through,” said Ojikutu. “We have to be very careful about who we would select and who we would offer services to that would be so far away from where we could necessarily intervene or get them to higher-level care.”
Lyndia Downie, who runs the Pine Street Inn, a provider of Boston homeless services and housing, said the city would be wise to explore options on the mainland before committing to reopening Long Island.
Downie has spent a lot of time on the island, where Pine Street Inn provided shelter and transitional housing for about 200 men. She wonders how many people who have gotten used to living on Mass. and Cass will actually board a bus, get on a ferry, and go to an island.
“It’s hard to convince people ... to move to something else when they can’t in their head see what’s next,” Downie said.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.