Designing a neighborhood from scratch: The stakes are high at Suffolk Downs
Not much is going on at Suffolk Downs these days. There’s one more weekend of racing at the 84-year-old horse track, and a trickle of gamblers still bet on out-of-town races. Otherwise, the place has cleared out — from its vast parking lots to the grandstands to the grass oval.
But if things go as planned, the 161-acre site, where East Boston meets Revere, would be a whole new neighborhood, a grid of housing and office space with roughly the population of the Back Bay.
What that neighborhood would look and feel like — and, by extension who gets to call it home — is being hashed out at City Hall and in a series of community meetings. The Boston Planning & Development Agency is reviewing a zoning plan from the developer HYM Investment Group, which wants to build about 10,000 apartments and condominiums, along with office space for 25,000 workers.
The agency is getting an earful from residents who fear Suffolk Downs will wind up as East Boston’s version of the Seaport District: block after block of office towers, luxury housing, and expensive stores and restaurants with little connection to the working-class neighborhoods around it. It’s a debate that has ground on for 18 months, with many more months likely to come.
The process highlights the challenges of designing a neighborhood from scratch: It has to include all of the ingredients necessary to develop a community — such as a library, senior center, parks, and affordable housing — while still making economic sense for the people putting up the money.
“This is the largest project we’ve evaluated in the history of the BPDA,” said Jon Greeley, its director of development review. “It’s this huge blank spot on the map, and we have the opportunity here to knit the community back together.”
At its center is HYM, which along with an investment partner spent $155 million in 2017 to buy the track, about two-thirds of which sits in Boston, with one-third in Revere. For a time, Suffolk Downs was the centerpiece of Boston’s bid for Amazon’s “second headquarters,” but HYM’s aim before that episode, and since, has been to create a largely residential extension of East Boston.
“How to make this feel like a real neighborhood is something we’ve been thinking about from the start,” said managing director Tom O’Brien. “It’s a central issue in our planning.”
One key element of HYM’s plan is a network of parks and public space laced throughout the site, covering about a quarter of its land. The Seaport, by comparison, features a collection of parks and plazas built by various developers that can feel more like a hodgepodge than a coordinated effort.
Another important aspect of the project: staying power. O’Brien ran Boston’s planning authority in the 1990s and has worked for 20 years as a developer in the city.
His financial backer for Suffolk Downs is William Bruce Harrison, a Texas oil billionaire whose investment firm cites its “hold forever philosophy.” O’Brien notes that some other large, master-planned developments have been sold and resold after receiving approval, with new owners coming in mid-project to pitch revamped plans.
“We are not going to sell this site,” he said. “We want to develop the whole thing in accordance with the principles we’re designing here.”
That makes it even more important to get Suffolk Downs right from the start, with critics pointing to elements of HYM’s long-term plan that they say are concerning.
For example, they say it’s unclear whether all that open space would be privately managed — a common arrangement in development-financed parkland — or truly public, like a city park. The same question applies to the streets, which HYM will pay to build.
Also, only 50,000 square feet of the 16 million-square-foot project would be set aside for civic space. That doesn’t leave much room for sites such as a fire station, clinic, or school.
Then there’s the mix of housing. Of the 7,100 units that would be in Boston, two-thirds would be studios and one-bedrooms, and fewer than 500 would have three bedrooms. (In its transportation study, HYM projects an average of 1.6 residents per household.)
“It seems like the developer has an intended community of people they want living there,” said Stephen Mahood, an East Boston resident who’s been following the project. “With all these one-bedroom apartments, they’re not looking for families.”
But perhaps the biggest sticking point is not the size of the units, but how much they will cost.
HYM is proposing to set 13 percent of the housing in Boston at deed-restricted affordable rents, the minimum required of large projects in the city. That would translate into 930 units, the single biggest infusion of affordable housing Boston has seen in decades. But in a part of the city where rents are rising fast — inexorably pricing out a longstanding Latino and immigrant population — some say HYM can and should do more.
“Obviously, it’s a massive increase in the city’s housing stock,” said Alex DeFronzo, an East Boston resident and a member of the planning agency’s project advisory group. “But the fact that they’re holding firm at 13 percent is concerning to a lot of people, I think.”
O’Brien said HYM has gone as far as it can on affordability. The average apartment at Suffolk Downs would cost about $500,000 to build, he estimated. Given the location at the far tip of East Boston, he said, market-rate units aren’t likely to command high enough rents to subsidize additional affordable housing. As an example, he cited a new apartment building nearby where one-bedrooms rent for about $2,400 a month. That’s pricey for Revere but far less than what new buildings in the Seaport fetch.
“This is not the East Boston waterfront,” O’Brien said. “The math just doesn’t work.”
It’s something the planning agency will study closely, said Greeley, who suggested a possible compromise that could increase Suffolk Downs’ affordable housing requirement over time, as the market establishes itself. Others have suggested the project should help finance affordable housing elsewhere in East Boston.
Given that HYM is requesting zoning changes, the planning agency has considerable leverage, said George McCarthy, president of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge. He said the city should determine what housing and public amenities it needs there and set the terms accordingly, instead of reacting to a developer’s plan.
“This is a question of political will,” McCarthy said. “The city has the authority to command whatever they want on that site.”
The affordability issue also speaks to a broader question: Who will Suffolk Downs be for?
O’Brien said he is committed to creating a place where all feel welcome. To help achieve help that, HYM is promising 50,000 square feet of retail space for local business owners, $2 million in job-training funds for East Boston residents, and a neighborhood health center, among other benefits.
Supporters of the project — and there are many — say they appreciate those offers, as well as a design that knits the new Suffolk Downs into the old Orient Heights neighborhood to its south. That, they say, will make it more like an extension of East Boston rather than some fancy outlier.
“That’s very important,” said John Nucci, a longtime Orient Heights resident and veteran of Boston politics. “If I had thought there were going to be any walls or gates, real or perceived, I would have been all over this.”
Still, it takes more than design to make a true neighborhood, said Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston on the City Council. Edwards is pushing the planning agency to require more affordable housing, but she also wants more room for families and more space for public streets, parks, a library, school, and senior center.
Now’s the time to lay the groundwork for that, she said, long before construction begins.
“You have to be intentional about whether you’re going to have a neighborhood,” Edwards said. “It will not happen naturally. That’s the lesson we’ve learned from the Seaport.”