The food market at Widett Circle isn’t the best use of 83 acres of urban real estate, and sooner or later the companies that now operate there may want to move.
If the city’s failed Olympics bid accomplished anything, it was to kindle a conversation about the future of the circle, a little-known section of the city between South Boston and the South End. Organizers suggested building a platform over the area, topped with a temporary stadium, and then developing the site into an entirely new neighborhood after the Games. They dubbed it “Midtown,” and envisioned it as the Games’ grandest legacy.
Obviously, the Olympic stadium isn’t going to happen now. The bid officially ended on Monday, amid low public support. But Widett Circle still needs a long-term plan if the food vendors decide to vacate. Because of the odd layout of the parcel, which also includes a knot of railroad tracks and bus facilities, the city should also be ready to play a hands-on role, complete with tax incentives, if it wants the land redeveloped.
Luckily, Mayor Martin J. Walsh is getting some of the planning legwork for free. A state-sponsored study by the Brattle Group is scrutinizing the Olympic proposal; despite Monday’s collapse of the plan, the group still expects to deliver its analysis of the financing scheme for the former Olympic projects, including the Widett Circle development. If the Brattle Group concludes that the Widett financing numbers add up, there is no reason the Olympic proposal couldn’t still form the basis for a redevelopment strategy — minus the cost of a stadium.
To some observers, of course, Widett Circle isn’t broken, and doesn’t need to be fixed. The food businesses there provide 800 jobs. While those businesses may only generate $800,000 in property taxes, as Olympic boosters often pointed out, that’s not the only way to measure the area’s value to the city. Widett Circle is one of the pillars of a blue-collar employment center that stretches across Interstate 93 into the Newmarket area. The kind of development that Boston 2024 imagined after an Olympics might raise property values in Widett Circle and Newmarket, and yield more tax receipts, but it could also threaten the viability of a business cluster.
Certainly the city shouldn’t try to push the food market out prematurely, or without a plan to keep those employers elsewhere in the city. But the original reason the food businesses moved to Widett Circle in the 1960s — access to rail transportation — is no longer as important economically, and it makes sense for the city to prepare for other options. In a sign of how the neighborhood is already changing, the nearby flower exchange voted to sell this year.
What the city most needs in the area instead is housing; Walsh has committed to building 53,000 units by 2030, an ambitious goal designed to ease soaring housing prices. While the quantity is important, it’s just as important to steer those new condos and apartments to the most sensible places. Next to the Red Line and the Fairmount commuter rail line, the area in and just north of Widett Circle could become an attractive new neighborhood.
But building over active rail tracks would increase costs, a hurdle that a private developer would be unlikely to tackle. That’s where tax breaks — one of the sources of controversy that bedeviled the Olympic plan — come in. Granting breaks on future property taxes to developers can be bad policy, if those developers would have built anyway. But there’s probably no better place in the city to use tax breaks to encourage development than Widett Circle. There’s almost no chance the city will lose out on tax money it would otherwise have received from Widett Circle — because there is almost no chance that a private developer would take on a Widett project without the city’s help.
A government role would not only ensure the area gets developed, but also allow the city to exercise more leverage over what emerges over the tracks. There’s plenty of building happening in Boston, but too much of it has added luxury units, not the kind of middle-income housing the city needs. Widett Circle could offer a chance not just to build, but to build affordable.
In the wake of the Olympic plan’s demise on Monday, Walsh says he still wants to explore Widett redevelopment. It’s possible that the downfall of the Olympics might even make its centerpiece easier to build: Taking away the cost of a temporary stadium is bound to make a Widett Circle development cheaper. It also opens the possibility of building out the area piecemeal, which could make the project more manageable. Walsh can use the Brattle Group’s study as a base for planning. However the city proceeds, the Olympics have started a valuable discussion about an area that could become a key part of Boston’s future.
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