In the year since Boston’s Olympics dream went poof, state Representative Nick Collins hasn’t stopped thinking about what could have been.
Not about dressage at Franklin Park or the athletes’ village at Columbia Point, but about that deck over Widett Circle that would have unleashed millions of square feet of development opportunities.
While the future of Widett remains up in the air, Collins and state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry have been pressing the city and state to look at the potential of a deck over the nearby Red Line tracks and Cabot Yard in South Boston that could similarly spur new development.
Last week the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority gave the go-ahead to study selling air rights of its property next to Widett Circle by the West 4th Street bridge. MBTA officials aim to make a recommendation in December.
Like the Olympic proposal for Widett, this project would be complicated and would probably involve a developer building an expensive platform over active rail lines. The estimate for the Widett deck was roughly $1 billion.
For Collins, a lifelong Southie resident, the T study is a way to keep alive the Olympic dream of creating a new neighborhood in South Boston. In the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games, Widett Circle was to be the home of a temporary Olympic stadium that would later be redeveloped into “Midtown,” a transit-oriented district with retail and housing.
“This is a great first step,” Collins told me. “It would connect a place that is disconnected.”
Gentrification has come to many parts of Southie, but that stretch near West 4th Street and along Dorchester Avenue remains gritty with warehouses and the Cabot Yard, which serves as a rail yard and bus maintenance facility for the MBTA.
After Boston’s bid collapsed last July, Collins went to New York City to check out Hudson Yards, the inspiration for the redevelopment of Widett Circle. Hudson Yards is an industrial section of Manhattan’s West Side that was originally planned as an Olympic Stadium as part of the city’s bid for the 2012 Summer Games. New York lost but went ahead with a $20 billion project over an active rail yard featuring luxury housing, upscale shopping, and blue-chip office towers.
Mayor Marty Walsh continues to hold out hope that one legacy of Boston’s failed Olympic bid is that Widett Circle will someday become a gleaming new live-work-play neighborhood. In addition to Cabot Yard and a city tow lot, the area includes a group of food wholesalers. Without a catalyst like the Olympics, developing Widett is probably many years away.
Earlier this year, it looked as if the state had more mundane plans for the area — as a parking lot for trains. As the state seeks to expand South Station, it will need to find space in the city to store empty trains during the day.
State transportation officials are now recommending that a portion of Beacon Park Yard in Allston, which is owned by Harvard University, serve as the primary layover site.
Widett Circle and a yard out in Readville remain as options, and if Widett is needed, the state will work with the city to preserve the area’s development potential.
While Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack wants to be a good neighbor, she made clear that whatever redevelopment takes place can’t compromise T operations. Cabot Yard, for example, is critical to maintaining Red Line service.
“It’s not an either or, but the first priority from a development perspective is a great MBTA,” Pollack said. “There are parts of the system that are not pretty but are necessary.”
I can understand Collins’s and Forry’s enthusiasm to explore development of the area around Cabot Yard. Just look at what’s happened on the other side of the Southeast Expressway in industrial section of the South End.
The old Boston Herald property is now the luxurious Ink Block — with condos, a Whole Foods supermarket, and restaurants. Redeveloping that part of South Boston would knit together two neighborhoods in transition.
But let’s face it. Air rights projects are notoriously difficult to pull off, from Columbus Center to Fenway Center. It’s difficult to build in Boston on a good day; try doing it over an active transportation hub like a T facility or the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Then there’s the issue of tax breaks. Widett Circle would probably have required an incentive package to offset the cost of the deck. It’s too early to say if the deck over the Red Line tracks in Southie would need a tax deal. But it’s something Forry is willing to discuss, especially if the project creates a certain number of jobs or affordable housing for families.
“Tax breaks and tax credits are part of the puzzle,” said Forry, whose district includes South Boston. “It’s really making sure the public gets the bang for their buck.”
Sometimes the best development opportunities are in the most unlikely places. The only way to find out is if we take a hard look.