Suffolk Downs won’t be home to Amazon’s second headquarters. But it will, if plans pan out, grow into an enormous new neighborhood, with room for tens of thousands of residents on the edge of East Boston.
The debate over what that neighborhood might look like, and who might get to live there, is heating up.
A master plan for the 161-acre horse track is grinding its way through City Hall, with advocates and activists watching warily while one of Boston’s best-known developers tries to capitalize on what he calls “an opportunity for something really wonderful.” When the plan is done, likely by next summer, it will lay out rules for density, open space, affordable housing, and other details of a project that will likely take two decades to build.
The vision by the HYM Investment Group, which in early 2017 bought the track with the intent to develop it, is enormous. Ten thousand new homes. Millions of square feet of office space. Forty acres of parkland that will double as storm-surge retention in the low-lying marshlands. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh pitched the site as Boston’s best site for Amazon’s second headquarters, but when the retail giant chose New York and Crystal City, Va., instead, HYM went back to work permitting what would be, effectively, a whole new neighborhood.
“We intend to create a great big mixed-use community there,” said HYM managing partner Tom O’Brien.
The big plans come amid big changes in East Boston, where rents, development, and traffic have all surged in recent years. That’s raising the stakes for Suffolk Downs. East Boston residents say they want a project that helps to address the neighborhood’s growing challenges, but some also worry it could just make matters worse.
A bit of that tension was on display Wednesday at City Hall, where a hearing on some relatively routine tweaks to the project’s zoning featured activists in the back of the room who videotaped every word and held signs protesting rent hikes.
They’re not opposed to the Suffolk Downs project, said Juana Sanchez, an East Boston resident who was threatened with eviction last year when a new landlord bought her apartment building. She said they just want to make sure that the plan doesn’t exclude the neighborhood’s large low-income population.
“They already have tears in their eyes at all of these expensive projects,” Sanchez said, through a translator. “Don’t forget about our low-income people, especially the elderly. They don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Those concerns were echoed by Lydia Edwards, the city councilor from East Boston, who said she’d lend “conditional support” to the zoning change with the understanding that the city will ensure that rules for fair and affordable housing are written in, and that residents get extra time to study, and comment on, the final plan — in English and Spanish.
“I want to make sure that our community is part of this plan, and that they feel like they have a home at Suffolk Downs,” Edwards said.
O’Brien said he agrees. The onetime head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority said his team has held more than 350 community meetings in East Boston and Revere since launching the project nearly two years ago, with many more likely in the months to come. They’re listening, he said, and trying to craft a plan that will accommodate everyone.
“We feel really good about the work we’ve put into this,” he said. “Not everybody is going to be 100 percent happy, but we’re trying to find that spot where all the people are at 90 percent.”
On the housing front, O’Brien noted that his Suffolk Downs plan would include more than 900 deed-restricted affordable units — the most ever built in one project under Boston’s requirement that 13 percent of units in new buildings be affordable. That number, though, is smaller than it could be, because more than one-fourth of the Suffolk Downs site, about 2,800 units, sits in Revere, which has no affordable housing requirement.
Still, O’Brien said, he aims to build, and lease, Suffolk Downs at a relatively modest cost, compared with pricey downtown projects. The best way to address Boston’s housing crunch, he said, is to add more housing; and no place in the city can add as much as Suffolk Downs.
“There’s a clear need across the city for more affordable housing, and you could hear that this morning,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting. “That’s key to what we’ve been about since the very beginning.”
Of course, real estate markets, and projects, change during the long process from inception to fruition. Other large master plans, including several in the Seaport District, have been amended repeatedly over the years as new developers buy projects from the original developers, and demand swings between office space and housing. In some cases, promised public benefits get scaled back, or fall by the wayside.
At Suffolk Downs, Boston Planning & Development Agency officials said, they’re trying to bake in some important guarantees from the start, with the understanding that details may evolve over two decades. Suffolk Downs will be planned in at least five phases, they said, and each one will need its own review and approval. In other words, said BPDA project manager Tim Czerwienski, there are many more meetings to come.
“All this will be subject to far more review,” he said. “We’re still in the middle, [and] in a lot of ways at the beginning, of the discussion.”