As the lawyer who represented residents of the Seaport and other Boston neighborhoods impacted by the now-canceled IndyCar race, I offer the following observations on the debacle:
Citizen activism worked. A diverse coalition of residents pursued every angle to bring attention to the adverse impacts of the race on public health, safety, and the environment. Concern spread steadily throughout the community as more people and neighborhood associations learned about the adverse impacts of this event and the six months of construction that would be involved. In the end, the group’s hard work and participation in the public process paid off.
The race approval process was not transparent. The city should have consulted affected neighborhoods before committing to a deal. Limited outreach by the promoter, the Grand Prix of Boston, couldn’t make up for the fact that the community felt it was an inside deal engineered through political connections.
Early public involvement would have helped avoid problems later encountered. Public officials did not use proper due diligence on the background and finances of the promoter, and the promoter did not use due diligence on multiple issues, including building in a flood zone on top of PCB contamination. Had the public been involved earlier, these red flags could have been raised earlier.
Residents’ efforts saved taxpayers millions of dollars. Due to strong activism by affected residents, city and state agencies ultimately required the promoter to pay all costs of road improvements and fund certain other costs in advance. Otherwise, the public would have been on the hook for millions of dollars.
Public records requests were ignored. The city and certain state agencies played rope-a-dope with public records requests that would have disclosed what the ever-changing IndyCar project consisted of and how it was being reviewed. This is the latest example of the need for drastic reform in access to public records in Massachusetts.
The race was a dubious public policy choice. The city and the state agencies never obtained a serious projection of economic benefits from the race, while ignoring the real costs to residents including harmful noise. Without the race, Boston remains a “world class” and livable city. Our elected officials never explained how giving a private for-profit entity exclusive control over 2.25 miles of public roads was legal or appropriate. In addition, government officials spent considerable time on IndyCar, instead of solving other pressing infrastructure and transportation problems.
The Conservation Commission is a hero. The Boston Conservation Commission voted to require organizers to follow its usual procedures for obtaining approval for construction work in a flood zone, properly hitting the pause button on the race.
Cypher Street PCB contamination still has to be cleaned up. The promoter tried to persuade environmental regulators that construction for the race project, including excavation of railroad tracks, would not disturb PCB contamination near Cypher Street. Now that the race is history, the contamination should be permanently removed without further delay.
The bottom line is that the public process finally worked here, due in large part to civic activism by residents who care deeply about their neighborhoods, the environment, and the proper functioning of government.
David Lurie is a lawyer who has worked in Boston for 34 years.