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Charlestown’s stake in Wynn game

An anticasino rally was held at Sullivan Square in September.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff/file

Ever since Steve Wynn proposed building a massive casino on a polluted riverfront lot in Everett, the wrangling over the facility has happened in the abstract. Promises of jobs that exist only on paper have dueled against traffic projections that exist only on paper. But Wynn’s casino won’t exist in the abstract. It’ll exist just over the bridge from Sullivan Square in Charlestown. And now the neighborhood will be part of a looming tug of war over what it will look like in the casino era.

The clock tower and neon signage on the Schrafft’s Center, which housed the old candy factory, are best known as objects sandwiched between Interstate 93 and the Mystic River, as landmarks viewed while sitting in traffic, en route to somewhere else. But both the center, and the Sullivan Square neighborhood it occupies, are about to undergo major reinventions. The factory is about to become a magnet for tech companies that can’t elbow their way into Cambridge’s Kendall Square or Boston’s Seaport district. Sullivan Square, now a tangle of idling cars and parking lots, is poised to become several new city blocks.


If the transformation works, the square becomes Charlestown’s answer to Somerville’s Assembly Square, a wasteland that morphs into a booming new neighborhood because its location is too good to allow it to sit fallow any longer. And if it doesn’t — if the square remains a traffic-choked wilderness sandwiched between Somerville, Everett, and Charlestown — then it will be the fault of the casino.

The square’s rebirth begins at the Schrafft’s Center. Partners HealthCare is moving out to a new campus at Assembly Square. The property’s owner, the Flatley Company, is seizing on the move to renovate the building’s lobby, improve access to the Mystic, and position the property to capture new economy companies that are finding themselves priced out of Cambridge and the Seaport.

Boston has spent years setting the stage for a wholesale reinvention of the neighborhood. There’s not much in Sullivan Square now, but Boston’s plans envision turning it into a destination by downsizing the roadways that now slice through it. The city’s current plans call for slicing traffic lanes off Rutherford Avenue, rebuilding the square’s traffic circle as a tree-lined boulevard, and turning the vacant lots between the Schrafft’s Center and the Sullivan Orange Line station into new homes, offices, shops, and parkland.


Boston wants to transform Sullivan Square from a place commuters cut through to a place residents and companies seek out. But to Wynn, the square is the front door to a casino, a place to move people and cars through on their way to the slot machines.

Two-thirds of the 25,000 daily car trips Wynn’s casino would generate would run through Sullivan Square. Months of bad blood between Wynn’s lawyers and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh stem from the anticipated traffic nightmare and disputes over how to pay for the roads to ease the traffic crunch.

Walsh has fought Wynn tooth and nail since he took office in January, but the game was stacked against him. Casino impact negotiations have treated Sullivan Square as a blank slate that has to be bypassed in the most efficient way possible. It isn’t. Wynn wants to drop a casino next to a neighborhood redevelopment effort that’s been years in the making. It’s an effort that’s about to take off. The worst thing Boston could do now would be to throw it all away, and cut a traffic deal that turns Sullivan Square into the front door to a casino.

Wynn won the state’s lone Boston-area casino license, in part, by agreeing to pay fines for exceeding traffic targets in Sullivan Square. But several hurdles remain. Wynn still faces an arduous state environmental permitting process, in which traffic concerns loom large. Boston should use the state environmental review to lay down a marker for its version of what Sullivan Square should become. Doing so wouldn’t be saying no to Steve Wynn. It would be reaffirming a vision the city has been chasing for years.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.