For a decade, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center’s vacant lots on D and E streets in South Boston have been an eyesore in the city’s Seaport District.
Ever since the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority took the land by eminent domain in 2012 and 2013, political arguments and administrative turnover have delayed any tangible progress in developing the two lots, which sit in one of Boston’s most expensive neighborhoods. Two rounds of bids in recent years didn’t yield a workable plan, in part because of the authority’s curious reluctance to embrace the land’s most obvious use: housing.
In the latest call for bids, the MCCA held community listening sessions on the lots, which cover more than 6 acres of choice property. South Boston residents repeatedly called for housing and open space. “Why not have housing on one of them? And have some kind of community benefit on one of them?” one community member asked.
But when the MCCA sought development proposals, it discouraged proposals that included housing. It’s not saying why — and the authority declined to respond to questions from the Globe editorial board. But given the state’s desperate need for housing, a change of course would be appropriate.
Yes, creating housing on the MCCA parcels may be complicated and involve questions of eminent domain and zoning. But the region’s housing crisis should prompt the authority to at least try.
Rents in Boston continue to be among the most expensive in the nation, according to the 2023 Greater Boston Housing Report Card. The report says that over half of renters and a quarter of homeowners in Greater Boston are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Housing costs are also a threat to businesses — including BCEC.
Legislation like Governor Maura Healey’s Housing Bond Bill could help alleviate Massachusetts’ rising housing prices and inadequate housing supply. But the state’s quasi-public agencies — like the MCCA — need to do their part, too.
The South Boston Neighborhood Development Corporation collected petition signatures calling for the inclusion of income-restricted housing in the MCCA’s request for proposals on the D and E street lots.
“The affordable housing advocates have always been trying to push those quasi-public agencies to prioritize affordability when they put land out to bid,” said Donna Brown, the group’s executive director. “They don’t always do it.”
An example the MCCA should consider following is the Massachusetts Port Authority, another Bay State quasi-public agency that recently offered up its land for housing.
Two years ago, Massport began searching for an affordable housing developer to lead a project — also in the Seaport. Sandwiched between a high-end apartment complex and the Omni hotel on D Street, the plan will yield a 15-story apartment building of under market rate units. While Massport usually calculates financial return to the authority when deciding on developers, it instead chose to replace this qualification with the plan’s affordability. Massport is also making the development of housing cheaper by only charging a small fee for the land.
The MCCA should follow suit. Although its mission is to generate convention-related business, its charge is also to help the Massachusetts people, who desperately need housing.
In a community discussion about the land, a representative with the MCCA acknowledged “ten years of nothing.” He’s right. A decade of nothing begs for action — but it must be action that serves the public’s most pressing needs.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.