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Legislature may get involved in fight over housing at old power plant in South Boston

Developers plan a 1.9 million-square-foot complex at the former power plant in South Boston. But currently, a restriction prevents residential projects on the site.
Developers plan a 1.9 million-square-foot complex at the former power plant in South Boston. But currently, a restriction prevents residential projects on the site.(Stantec)

South Boston politicians opposed to a massive redevelopment project at the shuttered Boston Edison plant have taken their fight to the State House.

Senator Nick Collins has filed a bill that would require a full review by the Legislature and the state inspector general’s office before any housing can be built at the 15-acre power plant site on Summer Street overlooking the Reserved Channel.

RELATED: Sparks fly as Conservation Law Foundation weighs in on project

At issue is a deed restriction the Massachusetts Port Authority negotiated in 2014 with the site’s previous owner that prevents residential units from being built there. At the time, Massport was planning to build a bypass road for trucks to connect Conley Terminal, a shipping facility, directly to Summer Street and wanted to avoid conflicts that future development at the old plant might pose. The bypass, which opened in 2017, includes a new bridge that passes next to the property.

Collins’ bill would prevent the restriction from being lifted until an analysis of its value is submitted for review to various legislative committees and the inspector general. After that, the change would need the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature.

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The Boston Edison Power plant on Summer Street in South Boston, as it appeared in 2002.
The Boston Edison Power plant on Summer Street in South Boston, as it appeared in 2002.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File)

Collins filed the bill days after the Conservation Law Foundation sent a letter to Massport raising concerns that the authority might be wiling to lift the restriction to allow part of the site to be used for housing.

The Boston developer Redgate is working with a Chicago-area developer, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, to pursue a 1.9 million-square-foot project at the property. It would include offices, two hotels, restaurants, and shops.

But the residential component could be a major obstacle. The developers want permission to build more than 1,300 apartments and condos, prompting concerns about traffic and parking.

The project has been under review for nearly two years by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, with the developers last summer shaving nearly 250 housing units from their original plan in response to the concerns. Last month, the city agency asked for more information about transportation and other impacts. That request will trigger another public comment period after Redgate responds, probably extending the process for several more months.

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Ralph Cox, principal of Redgate Real Estate, said it’s working through the city and state permitting for the project and does not think special legislation is necessary.

“If the preferred redevelopment plan does require a modification of the Massport restriction then we’ll work to determine the appropriate terms of such a modification,” Cox said. “We’re confident that the existing process will fairly resolve outstanding issues without the need for legislation.”

For politicians such as City Councilor Michael Flaherty, the developers’ modifications to their plans remain inadequate.

“Redgate has ignored the community’s concerns to date but they won’t be able to ignore this legislation,” Flaherty said. “Thirteen-hundred residential units next to . . . the expanded Conley Terminal makes zero sense.”

Collins said most of those units would be luxury housing, something the neighborhood does not need. “There’s strong support for cleaning up the site,” said Collins, a South Boston Democrat. “But there is no appetite [in the neighborhood] to build luxury housing at this site.”

Instead, the project should be focused on commercial development, Collins said. The packed MBTA buses that leave South Boston every morning, he said, could be put to good use by bringing workers to the neighborhood from downtown.

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Collins said his primary goal is to protect the cargo port, which is essentially next door to the property. The Legislature approved $107 million in state funds in 2016 to help expand Conley Terminal, and a related $350 million dredging project is underway — funded with state and federal money — to ensure bigger ships can use the harbor.

“The legislation will bring transparency and accountability to a process that thus far has had none,” Collins said. “The community has had it, and taxpayers’ investments are in jeopardy.”

Collins’ counterpart in the House, Democrat David Biele of South Boston, supports the legislation and has filed a House version.

It’s too early to know how the bill would fare, but Collins said it was filed in time to be guaranteed a public hearing. The bill also potentially gives the project’s opponents a new source of leverage in any negotiations with the developers.

A Massport spokeswoman declined to comment beyond a brief statement that said Massport has taken no action on the deed restriction and has expressed concerns about the project’s potential impact on the working port. Any changes to the deed restriction, the authority said, would be brought before the Massport board if the community agrees to proceed.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.