The former Wonderland dog track just might be the last major development site in all of Revere: more than 30 acres of flat land, next to the Blue Line, a stone’s throw from the beach.
That was until November, when Mayor Brian Arrigo signed an order to take it by eminent domain for a badly needed new high school, to serve as many as 2,450 students.
Goodbye, Wonderland, right? Maybe not.
Now, the high school project is suddenly in jeopardy, the land might end up on the market again, and the city will soon have a new mayor. It’s been a chaotic ride, even for those accustomed to the bare-knuckle politics of this North Shore city.
It all happened so quickly.
The now-former owners of Wonderland sued the city over the taking, saying they’re owed far more than the $29.5 million that the city paid — possibly four times that amount. Then a majority of the City Council voted to reject the design for the school that would be built there, a likely deal-killer for the project at Wonderland, even though the council had previously approved the site and the eminent domain. The day after that vote, Arrigo announced he wouldn’t run again this fall, setting off a scramble for his job. And the schools superintendent fired off a letter to the City Council, saying the six councilors who voted down Wonderland are crippling the school department for another decade — if not forever. And that’s just what happened in February.
Now, the city of Revere is defending itself against a lawsuit over a property it may no longer need.
Peter Flynn, the lawyer for former Wonderland owner CBW Lending LLC, seems genuinely surprised by this situation. He looks at the 50-acre former Necco candy factory site nearby that sold for $355 million three years ago, and figures the Wonderland property should be worth considerably more than the $29.5 million the city paid to his client — a partnership of concessionaire Joe O’Donnell and Vornado Realty Trust. He also argues the city officials docked a half-million from CBW’s payout to cover parking fees, something he says they had no right to do. If the lawsuit goes to a trial, Flynn said, he could end up winning a record-setting jury award for eminent domain cases in Massachusetts.
It might not come to that. These types of disputes often get worked out in negotiations. And CBW’s leverage has increased significantly, now that the city might not even need Wonderland anymore. If city officials want to talk about returning the property, Flynn says, agreeing to rezone it to allow substantial residential development would be a good start.
The council remains divided between people who, like the superintendent, believe Wonderland remains the best site for a new high school, and those who prefer using the existing high school property. Arrigo says he will push the council to reach a consensus about what to do next on March 27. Good luck with that, Brian.
Dan Rizzo, a former mayor who narrowly lost to Arrigo in a rematch four years ago, is among the councilors who voted Wonderland down. Rizzo said he is concerned about the cost of building a new high school, and losing a potential real-estate tax gold mine if Wonderland is used for a school instead of private development. The latest price tag is $470 million, not counting the $29.5 million — and perhaps eventually more, depending on the eminent domain lawsuit’s outcome — to acquire the site. (Rizzo is now among at least three councilors lining up to run for mayor this fall.) Rather than build at Wonderland, Rizzo asks, why not rebuild at the existing high school site and use the taxes from future development at Wonderland, potentially as much as $20 million a year, to help pay off the school’s bonds?
School Superintendent Dianne Kelly has plenty of reasons why not.
Building at the existing high school site comes with its own complications, such as replacing a public park and relocating an underground culvert. Kids would have to endure construction for at least six years. And Kelly said her long-term vision of addressing school overcrowding by turning the existing high school building into a central middle school would be lost. The school building committee and its hired experts vetted every possible property, she said, and the most affordable place to build turned out to be Wonderland. (The estimate for building at the high school is $535 million, she said.)
Much of the recent debate has focused on the eminent domain lawsuit: How much will it cost the city? Should the city keep Wonderland? Will CBW be willing to take the site back? Rizzo and his allies argue that the threat of a big eminent domain payout is serious enough to warrant backing away from Wonderland, especially because the state’s school building reimbursement funds can’t be used for land purchases. Meanwhile, Kelly and her supporters say it’s irresponsible to abandon the Wonderland concept because of a lawsuit that many people expected, anyway.
Regardless of how this mess gets resolved, Arrigo won’t be in City Hall to see it through. He won’t say what he’s doing next, or when he’ll leave, just that he has committed to sticking around until April 1 to avoid requiring a special election to fill his seat. (City Council president Patrick Keefe, who is also now running for mayor, takes over during any interim period.)
Arrigo says it was an unfortunate coincidence that his announcement about not running again came the day after the 6-4 council vote on Wonderland. He said he decided late last year that this would be it, after two four-year terms, and that he would make the announcement around his annual state-of-the-city address on March 2. Arrigo won a close election in 2015 to unseat Rizzo, and another in 2019 to hold onto the seat. He didn’t want to endure another grueling campaign, he said, not with two young kids at home. And he honestly thought the new high school, his signature project, was on a glide path to construction. Not anymore.
During his nearly eight-year tenure, Arrigo helped attract significant public and private investments to the area around Revere Beach and the Wonderland T station, ushering in new hotels, restaurants, and apartment buildings. All the while, Wonderland sat empty.
As he prepares for a future outside of City Hall, Arrigo seems frustrated about the high school project’s fate. It may end up being resolved under a different mayor. It’s increasingly looking like the fate of Wonderland will be, too.