The industrial area known as Widett Circle essentially remained hidden in plain sight for decades, a nondescript string of low-slung buildings hard by the Southeast Expressway where hundreds of workers toiled away to prepare foods that fed the city.
Then, almost overnight, it was positioned as the home for a glorious Olympic stadium. Then, a massive new mixed-use neighborhood. Then, maybe, an Amazon warehouse. Now, it appears Widett will become what some say was always the most practical next use for the place: a railyard.
The MBTA is preparing to acquire the 24-acre industrial area just south of downtown, with the agency’s board authorizing the purchase on Thursday. Though Widett has long been eyed by transit officials for a layover yard, it has also become in recent years one of Boston’s hottest potential development sites.
The train layover project is crucial to the MBTA’s ambitious plan to expand the South Station terminal. It would give the T a location much closer than an existing yard in Readville, on Boston’s southern outskirts, to park trains, especially during midday lulls. Having the layover yard only about one mile from South Station should improve service on the lines that rely on the station, particularly the Fairmount line, and help handle the increased traffic that will come with the long-awaited South Coast Rail commuter line to New Bedford and Fall River.
“This is a foundational element for a lot of the ideas and a lot of the thinking about the future of commuter rail,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said at the T meeting. “They are not creating new land in downtown Boston and this is the opportunity to secure this parcel, once and for all. For many of us, this has been a quest that has spanned across multiple years, perhaps multiple administrations. And we are now in a position to get it done.”
In a statement, Mayor Michelle Wu sounded a hopeful note, saying the deal opens the door for more-frequent train service for the city, particularly if the T eventually converts its diesel-fueled fleet of commuter rail cars to electric-powered ones. She added that it also should remove the need for rail layover in the Harvard-owned Beacon Park Yard in Allston.
“I look forward to seeing additional details soon from the MBTA,” Wu said.
The T plans to acquire the land through “friendly” eminent domain from developer Able Co. and its financial backers, though details are still being worked out. Once the sale closes, it could take about three years to build the railyard. The purchase price is expected to be more than $200 million, but T officials declined to provide a number. Able purchased the two parcels that make up the site 2½ years ago, paying $125 million for a nearly 20-acre food distribution complex at Widett and an unknown sum — estimated to be in the tens of millions — for a roughly 5-acre cold-storage warehouse site next door.
Widett was long home to meat packers, seafood distributors, and other food wholesalers. But the spot didn’t pop onto the radar of the development community until about eight years ago, when it became the focal point of Boston’s ultimately failed bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Since then, Widett has been the subject of much speculation and attention among Boston’s developers. At one point in 2021, it was eyed as a home for a massive Amazon distribution center. All the while, state transportation officials have been in the mix, trying to ensure that some layover tracks could be included in whatever gets built. The billions the state has seen in budget surplus funds and federal recovery money over the past two years helped make the deal more financially feasible now.
Former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh tangled with the T over the future of Widett when he was in office, arguing that the land is too well-situated to be used only as a layover yard and instead should be primed for development.
Now, assuming the transaction goes through, the T will be in control of the full 24 acres, along with a small parcel it already owns there. (Nearly all of the food processing businesses that once called it home have already left.) However, it’s likely Widett could host other uses as well, such as a state highway operation on D Street in South Boston, or some of Boston’s nearby public works operations.
While its proximity to the Red Line as well as downtown and neighboring South Boston and the South End made Widett alluring to developers, access to the site is limited because it is bordered on one side by railroad tracks and on the other by the Southeast Expressway.
“It has great visibility [but] my problem with the site . . . is it’s basically one way in and one way out,” said Boston Global Investors chief executive John Hynes III, who had worked on a plan to develop the site a few years ago. “If you’re coming up the Expressway and you happen to miss the Widett turnoff, it’s a long circle back.”
And the T’s ownership of Widett doesn’t necessarily mean the area would not see some development down the line. The Olympics planners envisioned a massive deck that would span Widett and other nearby sites, with trains parked underneath. That vision, to some extent, remains on the table: T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the railyard would likely be designed to accommodate an air rights project.
Matthew Kiefer, a development lawyer with Goulston & Storrs, said that might be the best eventual outcome for the long-debated site.
“The expansion of rail is important to the city’s future and finding a way to accommodate that is certainly important,” Kiefer said. “But it’s also true that for a site that large, and that close to the core [of the city], it would be great to have the best of both worlds, and to have the possibility of air rights on top of those tracks for future development.”