In East Boston, Amazon bid stirs anxiety as well as excitement
Sammy Cain would love Suffolk Downs to return to its glory days — when it was a premier horse track that drew thousands of whooping gamblers. But Cain, the former announcer at the defunct Wonderland dog track, knows a comeback just isn’t in the cards.
So as improbable as it may seem, Cain was enthusiastic about the idea of Amazon — sleek Seattle purveyor of all things under the sun — turning his beloved Suffolk Downs into a thriving new neighborhood of tech workers, trendy boutiques, and hip hotels.
“What’s a better location?” Cain, 65, said Thursday after betting on a couple of simulcast races at the nearly deserted track, which spreads into both East Boston and Revere. “You know how long it takes to get to the airport from here? Not even 10 minutes. And people will get jobs. People need jobs.”
As word spread that Boston and Revere were bidding to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to Suffolk Downs, there was a palpable sense of excitement among many locals who hoped the company would finally kick-start a site that has seen its fortunes crumble. But others worried that an infusion of 50,000 highly paid workers could exacerbate traffic problems and drive more longtime families and immigrants out of the neighborhood.
“Right now, the immigrant community in East Boston has been squeezed and displaced because of gentrification and, in one sense, it sounds good if Amazon brings those jobs, but who is going to get those jobs?” said Luz Zambrano, codirector of the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing in East Boston. “In many cases, it won’t be immigrants. The community is going to be displaced.”
Once a popular horse-racing venue, Suffolk Downs has been eyed in recent years as a home for a major casino and as a possible stadium for Boston’s failed 2024 Olympics bid. Since those proposals fell through, courting the country’s largest online retailer seems attractive to some.
“As far as Amazon, it’s a whole different animal,” said Rick Trainor, a 57-year-old retired state worker and lifelong Eastie resident. “It will bring a different type of job atmosphere into this area, which I think this area vastly needs. The jobs they offer are medium pay and high-level pay.”
Historically a haven for families from Italy, Ireland, and Eastern Europe, East Boston in recent years has been reshaped by an influx of young professionals and immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America. About half of East Boston’s residents were born in another country, more than in any other Boston neighborhood.
In their bid to Amazon, Boston and Revere pitch the crumbling, 160-acre Suffolk Downs site as the perfect location for a new “mixed-use neighborhood” anchored by Amazon’s 8 million-square-foot office and 10,000 new housing units.
Those units could house up to 20 percent of Amazon’s employees onsite and accommodate “a wide variety of residents, from young professionals and families to empty nesters and multi-generational households,” the bid states.
Alongside those homes would be five hotels and 550,000 square feet of streetfront retail, including restaurants and nightclubs. The bid shows colorful images of young tech workers socializing in a playland of gleaming, glass-walled buildings.
“Can East Boston handle it? I don’t know,” said Stephen Passacantilli, who is running to represent the neighborhood on the City Council. “It’s happening at a time when local development is completely out of control in East Boston, so it’s a lot to ask of them.”
Lydia Edwards, who is also running for East Boston’s City Council seat, said that if Amazon chooses Suffolk Downs, the company would need to listen to the concerns of residents, who may want the company to help protect nearby Belle Isle Marsh Reservation, contribute to affordable housing, or provide other benefits. “As long as East Boston is part of that process — and not responding to something that is preplanned — I think it would be much, much more welcome,” she said.
Joanne McKenna, a Revere city councilor whose district includes Suffolk Downs, said she supports the bid but believes her city would need to rebuild roads, sidewalks, and highways to avoid adding to traffic and noise problems. “It would have to take a lot of thought about how we’re going to accommodate 50,000 people,” she said. “It’s like putting a city in a city.”
Outside Suffolk Downs, several longtime gamblers said there was nothing that could sell them on replacing their track with a new “HQ2.”
“If you’re not going to put a condo here, at least put a racetrack,” said William Rotondo, 67. “Who the hell wants Amazon?”