Boston 2024 faces tall task in securing venues
Finding sites presents formidable obstacles for organizers, especially in time for a 2016 referendum
With its sights on bolstering local support for the Olympic Games, the Boston 2024 organizing committee said Tuesday it will cement the locations of key venues before Massachusetts voters go to the polls in November 2016.
But the Games organizers so far have made little progress on securing the privately owned properties targeted for the Olympic stadium and athletes’ village. That leaves them with just 20 months to complete what could be complicated and costly land negotiations.
Boston 2024 officials said that even though venues are in flux, they are ahead of schedule compared to previous Olympic bids and expect to nail down major locations before the public vote.
That timetable is doable, according to specialists, but will not be easy.
“You’re almost behind before you get started,” said Cassandra Francis, who handled assembly of the athletes’ village for the city of Chicago’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Summer Games. “These things can be done quickly if everything is aligned, or they can take a really long time.”
The tallest task could be negotiating the purchase of 20 acres at Widett Circle off Interstate 93 that is owned by the New Boston Food Market, a business cooperative of two dozen meat and seafood wholesalers. Boston 2024 has targeted the industrial site just off downtown as the home of the Games’s premier facility, the Olympic stadium.
Yet the food businesses don’t sound to be in a hurry to sell.
“Our position continues to be, we’re happy where we are,” said Marion Kaiser, chief executive of seafood wholesaler Aquanor Marketing Inc., who has served as a spokeswoman for the cooperative. “The only way we’d consider moving is if there’s some fabulous opportunity for us, but where are we going to find a location like this?”
The land, three connected parcels appraised at a combined $21 million, forms a semicircle at its southern end that looks ideally suited to fit the contours of a temporary 60,000-seat arena. It also would anchor a “pedestrian spine,” named the Olympic Boulevard, that would run from the harbor and up along Fort Point Channel and connecting paths. Planners envision the boulevard having the atmosphere of a street festival during the Games — with floating barges hawking concessions — and then serving as a permanent connection between the harbor and parts of South Boston after the Olympics.
The food executives gained considerable leverage Tuesday when Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston pledged the city will not take their property by eminent domain if they choose not to sell.
“The mayor came over, walked around the facility, and told us there would be no taking; he wouldn’t allow it,” Kaiser added. “He said if we wanted to sell, that would be our business. He said he wants these jobs to stay in Boston.”
A spokeswoman for Walsh confirmed he would not use eminent domain to take the Widett Circle property for the Olympics.
Walsh visited the food market as Boston 2024 chairman John Fish proposed the referendum during a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday morning. Fish said his group would put the Boston bid to voters next year and only move forward if it receives majority support statewide and within Boston.
Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, and the United States Olympic Committee endorsed the ballot initiative. The International Olympic Committee will select a host city for the 2024 Summer Games in September 2017.
Relations between the food market and Boston 2024 have improved since December, when the co-op’s leaders went public with their frustration at being excluded from Olympic planning meetings, despite owning a key piece of land. Michael Vaughan, an adviser to the food market and president of Nauset Strategies, said his clients recently met with Boston 2024 officials, cleared the air, and “agreed to have an open conversation and not have any surprises.”
Yet they are not on the same page when it comes to the status of the property. Kaiser said the co-op, which has 18 shareholders who would unanimously have to approve a sale, is willing to listen to an offer from Boston 2024 but would only accept if it meant moving to another location with similar facilities, a central location with ready access to rail service and major roads.
Boston 2024 chief executive Richard Davey characterized things differently.
“They’re in the market to sell; we know that to be true,” he said of the food executives.
The committee has identified Suffolk Downs as a backup stadium site, but Suffolk Downs management has had only one preliminary conversation with a Boston 2024 representative, according to chief operating officer Chip Tuttle.
Meanwhile several property owners in Dorchester’s Harbor Point area, which organizers have tabbed as the location of the athletes’ village and other facilities, said they still have not been contacted by Boston 2024, and have no plans to slow their own projects that are underway.
“We’re going full speed ahead on the development,” said Jack Englert, executive vice president of Criterion Development Partners, which recently broke ground on a 278-unit apartment building next to the JFK/UMass MBTA station. Criterion’s property was identified on Boston 2024 development plans as a potential site for Olympic operations. “I’m supportive of the idea of the Olympics; I just don’t know how my site could be incorporated.”
Across Morrissey Boulevard near the former Bayside Exposition Center, the Boston Teachers Union is nearing demolition of its aging headquarters for a new building. Boston 2024 plans show an Olympics shopping and administrative center on the union’s property.
“Boston 2024 has never picked up the phone,” said union president Richard Stutman. “The referendum, while I may think it’s a good idea, isn’t relevant to our plans. We’re going to have a new building here in three or four years at most.”
Technically, Boston 2024 has until January 2017 to answer questions about venue locations; that is when the committee needs to submit its final bid to the International Olympic Committee.
But Boston 2024 leaders acknowledged they need to clarify some of the major property issues well before the November 2016 vote if they are to win public support.
“It’s impossible to go out and defend a plan when the pieces are moving around,” said Steve Pagliuca, a Bain Capital managing director and cochairman of Boston 2024’s finance committee.