Widett Circle work isn’t rigged to enrich the elite
It would be an inside job of Olympic proportions and a multibillion-dollar bonanza for two developers.
Word around town is that the fix is in for Steve Samuels and Tom Alperin to carve up Widett Circle, the proposed site for the 2024 Olympic stadium and massive post-Games development. Well, I hate to disappoint (yet again) all the naysayers and critics who think the Games are set up to enrich the elite. It's just not true that Samuels and Alperin have this locked up.
Yes, even Boston 2024 knows better than to pull a fast one like this.
Neither Samuels nor Alperin are close to a deal of any kind. There's a public process that needs to take place for the 83-acre property, the details of which are still being worked out by the Olympic organizers, the city, and the state.
Although both Samuels and Alperin have been advisers and donors to Boston 2024, they haven't yet decided if they are going to pursue development at Widett Circle. The stadium would be temporary, and Mayor Marty Walsh sees the area as the city's next hot neighborhood, even if the Olympics never come to town.
"There is not a behind-the-scenes deal," Alperin told me. "My agenda is really as a volunteer."
Alperin got involved nearly two years ago when then-Boston 2024 chairman John Fish asked him to provide real estate insights to the organization. Alperin's mission: Figure out how to relocate the food distributors in Widett Circle and redevelop their land for the Summer Games and beyond.
Both Alperin and Samuels are familiar with the area. They have each done projects on the other side of the Southeast Expressway from Widett Circle. Samuels originally developed the South Bay shopping complex, which now features Target, Best Buy, and Stop & Shop. Alperin and his partner, Ted Tye, have gotten a lot of buzz for turning the grungy Boston Herald site in the South End into the fashionable Ink Block complex, anchored by a Whole Foods.
Alperin described himself as an initial skeptic of the Olympics, but the more he learned, the more he liked the idea. He has contributed $50,000 in cash to the organizing committee and numerous hours of advice.
"I am very supportive of the Olympics," he said. "Even if we don't win, the thought processes and plan can help us create a better city and a better environment."
Samuels wouldn't talk on the phone with me but issued a statement after a bit of cajoling. He, too, sees the potential of Widett Circle and thinks the planning "so far advances a thoughtful vision that shows great promise."
"Executing upon that vision will also be a massive and complex undertaking," Samuels said. "Like other developers, locally and nationally, we are following the process closely and look forward to determining whether there is ultimately a formal role for the Samuels team."
Widett Circle is the type of project that Samuels would go after. He likes being a pioneer and creating neighborhoods. David Ortiz may rule inside Fenway Park, but beyond the Green Monster Samuels is arguably the district's most valuable player, with projects like Trilogy, the Verb Hotel, and the Van Ness, which have turned the Fenway into an upscale neighborhood with apartments, restaurants, and stores.
So Samuels and Alperin seem like two developers Boston 2024 and the city would want to attract. But any developer worth his Mercedes and estate on the Cape is lying in wait.
Here's why: Despite the release last month of a more detailed 2.0 bid from Boston 2024, a lot more information about Widett Circle will be needed before anyone jumps in with shovels blazing. It's still not known whether a developer will own or lease all the land, pieces of which are owned by the city, state, and members of the New Boston Food Market.
More critically, the city has yet to issue new zoning regulations that would cover 8 million square feet of development over nearly two decades. You can't get financing until you know how high and how wide you can build, and whether other uses such as residential and hotels will be allowed. Right now, Widett is zoned light industrial.
Getting the numbers to work is particularly important. Just to prep Widett Circle, including building a platform over the rail yard, would cost a developer about $1.2 billion.
Now the city is dangling a lucrative tax break — perhaps the biggest in its history — but you can bet Mayor Walsh will be pitting developers against each other so he can get the best deal for the city — in other words, the smallest tax giveaway possible.
Boston 2024 is recommending a so-called master developer to oversee the build-out of Widett Circle, which can consist of one developer or a consortium of players. It's such a big project — nearly the size of the Seaport District — that the redevelopment is likely to involve multiple developers and investors.
Samuels and Alperin may be well connected, but this game is far from rigged.