Ideas

The future of Suffolk Downs

The power of fun

Doug Chayka for the Boston Globe

With easy access to Logan Airport, the T, and Route 1A, Suffolk Downs is a rare opportunity to mark a new gateway to the region—a fresh collaboration at the Boston-Revere line that can benefit both cities. No one doubts that the area can host new companies and jobs, apartments for families, and retail businesses—and become a vibrant place with amenities that attract young people and their ideas like a magnet, sparking a resurgence of long-term possibility to the “rust belt” of Boston.

But what should knit it together? The answer, just as in downtown Boston, lies in its history. Horses have raced here for 80 years, including the great Seabiscuit. In 1966, 24,000 people danced and sang with the Beatles here; in 1999, it was Elvis Costello.

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At the center of this new complex must be the historic grandstand, clubhouse, and some piece of the track and inner field. Today, our venues for performances have changed and expanded throughout the region. But here, we can think more creatively about a new state-of-the-art open space and performing arts facility—for small concerts, interactive public art and lights, farmers markets, and room for pickup sports.

Around that heart, the new Suffolk Downs development is primed for traditional recreational opportunities, and has room for some unconventional ones. Imagine playspaces for curious children, and pathways for bicycles, joggers, and walkers—a new network that opens Orient Heights to the beaches, creeks, and wetlands. And the possibilities grow from there. Imagine bridle paths from the historic paddocks to re-introduce horseback riding to city kids.

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Quincy Market taught us long ago that historic places don’t always need a plaque to tell us why they matter. Like Faneuil Hall, this land has a single owner who can shape the entire site, including public amenities, in ways that are harder to accomplish with a patchwork of multiple interests. Memory—yours, mine, ours—is a powerful value in shaping our sense of place, so let’s preserve what was most memorable about Suffolk Downs. New plans for the 161-acre site should keep and re-use the iconic grandstands and paddocks, but, above all, should preserve the tradition of possibility, joy, assembly, and music embodied in this historic place to create a neighborhood that expresses an unabashed sense of fun.

Kathy Kottaridis is executive director of Historic Boston Inc.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the date of a Beatles concert at the racetrack.

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