Business

Mail facility move is key in vision for Boston Olympics

Deadlock a concern in plan for walkway

Aerials of the US Postal Annex, Fort Point Channel, and South Station railroad tracks.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Aerials of the US Postal Annex, Fort Point Channel, and South Station railroad tracks.

A longstanding plan to move the Postal Service sorting facility out of the way of a South Station expansion essentially remains stuck on the tracks — and the inaction may jeopardize a proposed boulevard that would let thousands of Olympics spectators walk along Fort Point Channel to the main stadium.

In January, the Boston 2024 Partnership unveiled details for an Olympic Boulevard along Dorchester Avenue between South Station and the MBTA’s Broadway Station. In the group’s vision, thousands of spectators would empty out of the train station and walk southwest along Fort Point Channel to the main Olympic stadium, a temporary structure to be built at Widett Circle.

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Given its location behind South Station, the massive Postal Service property has a starring role in the Olympics dream. But that has done little to rekindle negotiations to move the mail-sorting operation. On-again, off-again discussions have spanned at least 15 years. Some say the move is crucial for the planned boulevard to materialize, in part because the Postal Service controls the stretch of Dorchester Avenue in front of its complex and doesn’t let the public through.

“Negotiations have to start with the post office in a more serious way in order for this Olympic Boulevard to really have a chance,” said Alex Krieger, a principal at the NBBJ architectural firm who worked on plans for the site on behalf of the Postal Service roughly a decade ago. “Momentum for the Olympics might accelerate [the land deal] even if we don’t get the actual bid.”

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Last fall, Richard A. Davey, at the time the state’s transportation secretary, helped engineer a proposal for a complicated three-way land swap aimed at drawing the Postal Service into South Boston and opening that part of Fort Point Channel for development and more rail traffic.

As part of that proposal, the state would have paid for a new $300 million mail-sorting facility and parking garage near the Reserved Channel in South Boston, on 12 acres of Massachusetts Port Authority land, and a separate 4-acre parcel owned by the Department of Defense. In return, the state Department of Transportation would have gotten the Postal Service land on Fort Point Channel. To compensate Massport for its lost acreage, that agency was to get 13 acres from the Postal Service’s nearby A Street parking lot.

The proposal was hashed out before Davey left state government and joined Boston 2024 as its chief executive, and prior to bid documents that described the envisioned Olympics boulevard becoming public. But the talks broke off in part because of disagreements over land value.

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Now, the postal facility’s prominence in the Olympics plans could end up complicating matters.

US Representative Stephen Lynch stepped in to help broker the proposed land swap last fall, pledging at the time that the deal was “at the five-yard line.” But the South Boston congressman has since expressed concerns about the Olympic stadium location. Since then, he has been mostly silent, at least publicly, about the Postal Service move.

State officials say the most pressing reason for the move is the need for more trains. South Station is essentially at capacity with its 13 tracks, and the vast postal complex is blocking any efforts at expansion. The state Department of Transportation has long eyed that land for seven more tracks and related infrastructure, an estimated $1.6 billion project that could be partially funded by selling off a portion for development.

Tim Buckley, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said the governor believes in the potential of an expanded South Station and a reopened Dorchester Avenue, and the administration is exploring financing options.

“The Postal Service has not appeared willing to enter into any sort of agreement with MassDOT but there will be funding in the [Baker administration’s upcoming] capital plan for environmental review,” Buckley said.

The South Station upgrade, in turn, could play an important part in providing transportation to the Olympics if Boston is picked to host the 2024 Summer Games.

With the main stadium planned a mile away, most attendees would get there via New England’s busiest train station. They could hop on the Red Line there and exit at the Broadway stop, or they could walk there directly if the now-closed stretch of Dorchester Avenue is opened up to the public.

More tracks could also help trains improve on-time performance, state officials have said, and accommodate self-propelled train cars to Allston, along with new routes to Fall River and New Bedford.

“It is an essential building block to the city,” Lawrence DiCara, a lawyer at Nixon Peabody who specializes in development issues, said of the expansion project. “We have to get more access to South Station.”

In the meantime, though, the waiting game continues. Representatives for the state Department of Transportation and the Postal Service have given no indication that the project is any closer to fruition than it was last fall.

Spokeswoman Maureen Marion said the Postal Service is willing to consider options that support the development of the train station. The agency had once been eager to move.

But at this point, she said, the Postal Service is fine with staying put and has no plans to sell its property.

Michael Verseckes, a state transportation spokesman, said that agency continues to evaluate an expansion of South Station and its train-boarding capacity. But no agreement for acquiring the 14 acres of post office land is imminent, he said.

Among the factors that have slowed the deal: a disagreement over valuations of the A Street parcel. That land has shot up in value in recent years amid the South Boston Waterfront’s high-end building boom. Davey’s departure from state government at the end of October — during the waning days of the Patrick administration — didn’t help the deal, either.

Massport chief executive Thomas Glynn said there’s been no progress since talks broke off last fall. But he remains hopeful, despite the standstill.

“The post office’s expectations and requirements seem very ambitious,” Glynn said. “The land swap is still a good idea. Expanding South Station is still a good idea . . . What would get the post office to move off of their position, I don’t know.”

Now based at Boston 2024’s offices on the other side of the Fort Point Channel, Davey is watching and waiting. He said the Patrick administration was “making good progress but the clock kind of ran out on us.”

With a new governor in office and a new postmaster general in charge, Davey said, it is understandable that big projects like this would be put on hold for a bit.

Davey suggested the potential for the 2024 Summer Games can be the push that’s needed for the land switch.

“I don’t think our bid will rise or fall on whether or not Dorchester Avenue can become an Olympic Boulevard,” Davey said. “[But] I think this goes to the heart of what we’re saying, that the Olympics can be a real catalyst to get things done.”

David Manfredi, one of the key architects behind Boston 2024’s venue plans, said he doubts the waterfront stretch of Dorchester Avenue will reopen for the Olympics if the Postal Service doesn’t move.

He said he’s not sure the Olympics bid will be the catalyst that completes the long-awaited deal. But at the very least, he said, the vision presented by Boston 2024 reminded the public of what could happen there if that property is opened up.

“We’ve introduced the idea of bringing it back,” Manfredi said. “I think people are intrigued by that.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.
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