As Tom O’Brien walks along Fan Pier on Boston Harbor, I ask him to do something that makes him uncomfortable: Talk about the time he ran the Boston Redevelopment Authority and oversaw the first master plan for the South Boston Waterfront in 1999.
It was a tumultuous time for O’Brien; he was at odds not only with his boss, the late mayor Tom Menino, but also with Southie leaders, chief among them the late City Council president Jimmy Kelly.
The fight was not only over what to call the area — the Seaport District (O’Brien’s pick) versus the South Boston Waterfront (Kelly’s preference) — but also what should be built on the 1,000-acre footprint. O’Brien wanted a residential neighborhood with about 8,000 units of housing, while Kelly wanted half that number, fearing too many residences would bring in newcomers who would upend the political dynamics of old Southie.
Why does any of this matter today?
Because O’Brien is now a big-time developer and among his high-profile projects is remaking Suffolk Downs into one of the region’s next great neighborhoods. Like the Seaport, the shuttered horse track that straddles East Boston and Revere offers a blank slate, but will history repeat itself and create yet another unwelcoming, high-priced office district that walls off the waterfront?
“Fan Pier from a planning and urban design perspective is a disaster,” acknowledged O’Brien. “The Fan Pier buildings are too tall and close together. There is no step back from the water. The open space needs to be way more public and connected.”
Menino, mind you, pushed out O’Brien, who resigned after only 2½ years at the helm of the BRA, now known as the Boston Planning & Development Agency. Much of the development of Fan Pier and the Seaport got approved and built after O’Brien left. While O’Brien doesn’t like the Southie waterfront, he’s also not quick to point fingers.
“I understand how we got there,” said O’Brien. “The public officials made the best decisions they could have.”
What happened, according to O’Brien, is that there was enormous pressure to develop the Seaport, a sea of cheap parking lots that became prime real estate after the completion of the Big Dig, cleanup of Boston Harbor, and the construction of a new convention center.
Billions upon billions of federal and state taxpayer dollars had been spent, yet the city had little to show for it. It seemed that Boston could never get its act together — in good times or bad. And there was plenty of bad in the 2000s that slowed development everywhere, between the recession in 2001 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of that year, and the Great Recession of 2008.
The drumbeat to do something in the Seaport got louder in 2009 when Menino was running for what would be his fifth and last term. So the mayor did something; in hindsight it was either rash or a stroke of genius depending on whom you ask.
Fan Pier, considered one of the Seaport’s most desirable parcels, had been tied up for years in litigation and dithering before it was finally sold to Boston developer Joe Fallon. He managed to break ground during the Great Recession and begin construction on a residential tower. And to build momentum, the mayor helped woo Cambridge biotech Vertex Pharmaceuticals to relocate its headquarters to Fan Pier where it could occupy a twin set of 16-story towers. The deal, eventually inked in 2011 and sweetened with tax breaks, helped jump-start development in the rest of the Seaport.
“There was a lot of pressure on the city for something to happen,” O’Brien explained. “The juxtaposition for us . . . we own all of Suffolk Downs. We and the city do not feel the pressure to prove anything.”
Actually, there is something to prove: That given the opportunity to build a new neighborhood, we don’t develop another white rich enclave like the Seaport, that new Boston isn’t just for those who can afford it and that this time around development will be far more inclusive.
Only 33 when tapped as BRA director, O’Brien sports a full head of gray hair today. He is one of the region’s busiest developers as a founding partner of HYM Investment Group and worked on major projects that include North Point in Cambridge, Boston Landing in Brighton, and Bulfinch Crossing, which is just across City Hall Plaza and his old office.
We spent an hour on a recent morning in the Seaport walking among cranes and construction zones and checking out the office and apartment buildings where Anthony’s Pier 4 restaurant once stood.
“My mother would never let us hold the menu,” recalled O’Brien, 56, who grew up in Scituate and Andover, and would dine at Pier 4 with his family on special occasions such as birthdays or first communion.
Afterwards, at O’Brien’s suggestion, we hopped the Blue Line from the Aquarium station to the Suffolk Downs stop. The old horse track may seem out of sight, out of mind, but when the T functions properly it’s only an 11-minute ride from downtown Boston.
Suffolk Downs is 161 acres, and it’s hard to find another parcel of that size in Boston. The track’s future has been plotted many times over, from the home of a new gleaming casino to Amazon’s second headquarters.
With the last horse race in June, the future is now for Suffolk Downs and it’s in the hands of O’Brien and his partners. Walking along the perimeter of the property, O’Brien said he wants to reconnect Suffolk Downs to the rest of the neighborhoods in East Boston and Revere.
“It has been its own separate piece since the 1930s,” said O’Brien.
If he missed his chance to make the Seaport a residential neighborhood, he is making up for it at Suffolk Downs. Of the 16 million square feet of planned development, 10 million square feet will be devoted to housing. That’s comes out to about 10,000 units — a mix of rental apartments, condos, senior housing, single-family homes, and town homes, as well as 930 units of affordable housing.
By contrast, the Seaport — on a much bigger footprint — has about 2,400 units of new housing built and another 3,600 units approved, according to the BPDA.
Office and retail will also be part of the new Suffolk Downs, but so will open space — a lot of it. About 25 percent of the site, or 40 acres, will consist of publicly accessible space, such as playing fields and a running/walking path. It’s likely the center green of the horse track will also remain as open space.
Another reason to keep so much land undeveloped: to help manage rising sea levels due to climate change. The open space can serve as a way to protect the rest of the development from the flooding of the Chelsea River and Belle Isle Marsh. O’Brien tells me that rising sea levels were not on the radar back when he was at the BRA, and now city officials and developers are playing catchup to protect waterfront property.
Housing and parks are important ingredients for a new neighborhood, as are civic spaces, a school, or a library — amenities critics say the Seaport lacks. O’Brien knows these elements are needed, too.
So can Suffolk Downs avoid the mistakes of the Seaport? Only time will tell. The Seaport once had thoughtful plans too, but politics and a bad economy got in the way. If O’Brien can stick to the plan, he might end up with the neighborhood the Seaport once promised to be.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.