David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Marty Walsh is betting big on Suffolk Downs, but let’s not mistake that for thinking big.
The mayor made the soon-to-be shuttered horse track that straddles the East Boston-Revere line the prime location for Amazon’s second corporate headquarters in Boston’s pitch to the online giant. A lot is riding on the city’s going all-in on the site, including $5 billion in investment from the tech giant and as many as 50,000 well-paying jobs.
The city’s submission to Amazon, released Thursday, mentions three other development areas — South Boston Waterfront/downtown, South End/Back Bay/Widett Circle, and Allston/Brighton to South Station — but they’re just afterthoughts. Suffolk Downs is featured in a 34-page spread in the 218-page pitch; the other sites get 14 pages combined.
Suffolk Downs, which in an earlier life aspired to be a casino, is the obvious choice if Amazon wants a shovel-ready, 161-acre blank slate. It sits between two MBTA stops, and it’s so close to Logan Airport you can see the planes land. All of that is on Amazon’s wish list.
Tom O’Brien, managing director of HYM Investment Group, which owns the track, said the Suffolk site meets Seattle-based Amazon’s needs. “The customer is always right. So if the customer asks for 8 million square feet on 100 acres, you give it to them,” he said.
But as much as Suffolk Downs hews closely to the company’s request for proposals, the big downside is that the site is too isolated from what makes Boston such a compelling home base: our universities and our incredible ecosystem of engineers, scientists, financiers, and entrepreneurs.
I keep thinking back to what made General Electric fall in love with Boston and move its headquarters here last year. Like Amazon, GE wanted to be in a place swarming with smart people and ideas.
Early in the process, GE executives went up some 30 stories to the top of the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. Peering down, they could see an eclectic mix of gleaming towers and renovated brick warehouses along the waterfront.
They then got on the ground for a closer look. As they walked over the Summer Street bridge, they could sense the bustle of an emerging district, with people flowing from South Station into the Fort Point Channel neighborhood, where GE is now building a $200 million headquarters.
“It felt like exactly the place we wanted to be,” Ann Klee, the head of GE’s search committee, told me shortly after the company chose Boston.
Innovative companies crave collaboration. That’s why every startup wants to be in Kendall Square or the Seaport District.
We locals know you have to have an active imagination to see how Suffolk Downs could work, a place so removed that some people might not know it’s part of Boston. Don’t even get me started about the gas tank farm next door, which, to the city’s credit, was not airbrushed out of its renderings of what the site might look like with Amazon as the tenant.
Suffolk Downs is the choice of least resistance but risks being the one of least interest to Amazon.
What would I have liked to see? The creativity to try to squeeze Amazon into the urban core, to give the company a few more fleshed-out options.
The possibilities in the hot Seaport deserved more ink, as did the area in and around South Station, which is slated for high-rise development. Or how about twin towers over Government Center Garage?
I still think a proposal that included something on the campus of MIT — given how much Amazon prides itself on innovation — would have made the Boston bid stand out.
Oops, wait, that university is in Cambridge. But MIT president Rafael Reif gave me some hope the institution will step up if a city from Massachusetts makes it to the next round.
“I believe that your search presents Amazon and the region a unique opportunity to build a more exciting future together,” wrote Reif in his letter supporting Boston’s bid. “MIT wants to play a major role.’’
One of the more outside-the-box ideas has been to build a headquarters that knits together Cambridge Crossing (formerly NorthPoint), a site in Charlestown’s Sullivan Square, and Assembly Square in Somerville. You could also imagine Bunker Hill Community College, which sits amid all of that, as being in the mix to feed tech talent that requires only two-year degrees. Let’s hope that shows up in the state bid, or Somerville’s.
So now what?
We wait, along with scores of other cities and regions, to hear from Jeff Bezos.
I do think Boston is Massachusetts’ best shot. We have to hope the city makes it to the second round, based on our unrivaled brainpower — a region stocked with 75 colleges and universities that enroll 300,000 students annually. Having MIT and Harvard is icing on the cake. Add in teaching hospitals and a booming biotech sector, and Boston becomes a stage for collaboration and innovation.
After all, good real estate is scarce here, but good ideas are abundant.
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