With Amazon in mind, Suffolk Downs developer seeks environmental review waiver
The developer of the Suffolk Downs site wants to move at Amazon speed, even if that means accelerating some environmental reviews.
HYM Investment Group, which owns the East Boston horsetrack that city officials are pitching to Amazon for its “second headquarters,” is asking the Baker administration to waive lengthy state environmental reviews on the part of the city so they can start construction by next spring on two office buildings near the Suffolk Downs Blue Line stop.
The request, which needs approval from state environmental secretary Matt Beaton, is a sign of just how fast civic and business leaders are racing to stay at the front of the pack in the competition for the much-coveted project. And approving it, HYM managing partner Tom O’Brien said, would be a signal that Boston — which has a reputation in some corners as a challenging place to build — is serious about wooing Amazon.
“We want to make sure that if Amazon calls next week or next month and says, ‘We’re coming,’ that we’re prepared,” O’Brien said. “We hope that Amazon will be impressed by [the] fact that we’re doing what we said we could do.”
Beaton’s office declined to comment, citing HYM’s pending application, but Governor Charlie Baker has supported the bid to bring Amazon to Massachusetts.
Boston is widely considered to be a strong contender for the company’s “HQ2,” which the tech giant says will could house up to 50,000 employees in the next 10 to 15 years. Nearly 250 proposals from states and cities across North America were submitted in October, with Boston’s bid banking heavily on the soon-to-shutter horsetrack on the Revere line, which city officials say is the only site in Boston with both the acreage and transit access that Amazon says it needs.
An Amazon spokesman recently told the Globe that the company will probably boil down proposals to a short list by early 2018, with an eye to picking a site sometime next year. The company wants to open an approximately 500,000-square-foot office — the first phase of its headquarters plan — in 2019.
Hitting that mark means starting fast, O’Brien said. He’d like to begin construction on the pair of buildings by springtime, and have them open by the end of 2019. To do that, he needs the shortcut around environmental studies, which can take a year.
The waiver would apply only to the initial phase of the massive project, a pair of 260,000-square-foot office buildings and a 520-space parking garage in the southeast corner of the track, closest to the Suffolk Downs Blue Line stop. The state would still review the broader 161-acre project, which O’Brien said he expects will take a decade or more to build out.
It’s an unusual, but not unprecedented, request.
State law allows a waiver on a project’s first phase if the developer can prove not having one would “result in undue hardship” and if state officials don’t believe that what’s built would cause significant environmental damage. A handful of projects around the state have received waivers in recent years, including the first phase of General Electric’s headquarters along Fort Point Channel, a renovation of two old warehouses.
At Suffolk Downs, HYM’s application notes that the Rumney and Belle Isle marshes are nearby and could be affected by the development, but it says the project will improve stormwater runoff in the area. It also notes that there is asbestos in the buildings that will be demolished and says oils, metals, and arsenic have been found in the soil. The work would generate about 2,600 car trips per day but require no new roads, according to HYM.
While Beaton reviews the request, HYM is also pushing ahead with city permitting. The developer will file the first phase of paperwork with the Boston Planning & Development Agency separately from the broader project, allowing for a quicker review. It will still have a full schedule of community meetings and public hearings, city officials said, with the first meeting scheduled for Dec. 13.