I’ll give this to the Boston 2024 folks: They’ve fulfilled one of their promises — making us consider big plans we wouldn’t be discussing otherwise.
But are they the right big plans?
These days, the bid is all about Widett Circle, site of the proposed Olympic Stadium. The 2024 boosters, recognizing they’ve made a hash of things until now, are finally driving the coverage, shifting the discussion from risk and lack of transparency to grand, shining legacies, changes to our city that will endure long after the Olympic flame flickers out.
And no proposed legacy shines more brightly than “Midtown,” a magical-looking new neighborhood of handsome buildings and verdant public space in the middle of the city, a part of town just about no one knew or could name.
My, those renderings are gorgeous. Instead of the rail yards and food wholesalers that currently occupy those 83 acres wedged between South Boston and the Southeast Expressway, there would be 18 blocks and 8 million square feet of apartments and offices, with cafes and parks, in a primo location.
The idea of remaking such a big chunk of the city is pretty appealing, though it would be nice to see more affordable housing among the 4,000 units that boosters have suggested. And the renderings look too much like the high-end neighborhood rising on the South End side of the expressway for my liking.
Still: Nice, big thinking. As I’ve said before, it is a bummer that we need a giant international event — and the attendant risk of global humiliation — to spur us to such a conversation. But I’ll take it.
The problems begin when we move from the theoretical to the actual, from creating a vision to making it happen, on budget and on time. If Boston actually gets the Olympics, the Widett Circle proposal goes from an intriguing exercise in planning to super scary.
Those proposed tax breaks for whichever developer puts up the stadium and other buildings make me queasy. Over the decades, the city would be giving away an awful lot of money to that company, which will clean up. And yes, the city would be collecting more taxes than it is now, but it would not be an unfettered windfall: A new neighborhood means new city services, after all.
Sure, Boston gave breaks on the Prudential Center, built over train tracks in the 1960s, but the city was dying back then. It’s certainly not dying now. Now, we have a crazy booming real estate market, with new developments in both the South End and South Boston inching ever closer to Widett. The transformation of that area was always going to come: Is getting there a little quicker, on the Olympic timetable, really worth all the trouble and cost?
And once that developer is designated and a deal signed, the city loses its leverage. If there is another economic downturn between now and 2024, shrugging our shoulders and leaving a hole in the ground at Widett, like the Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing when that project ran into trouble, will not be an option. As has happened in other Olympic cities, somebody will have to step in and bail the developer out, or there will be no Olympics. That somebody will be us.
There has been talk of an insurance policy to cover the inevitable overruns. But no company could write a policy that would completely protect us.
You can’t really enjoy those lovely renderings if you think about this stuff.
Back to that vision for Widett, then, which seduced even me (until I thought about it). So pretty!
If only we could marshal that level of sizzle for non-Olympic affairs, coming up with bolder and better solutions for our struggling schools, or our homeless population. Or even for other aspects of the Olympics bid itself, like the transportation improvements that were supposed to be one of the Games’ main selling points. If only we could make new signals on the Red Line as easy to sell as a shiny new neighborhood.
Those are the kinds of big things we really need to talk about. But as time has taught us all too well, not even an Olympics can make them sexy.