By John Lynds
Former Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Director Thomas O’Brien’s development firm HYM announced it has closed on its purchase of Suffolk Downs last Friday. O’Brien’s firm, who has made a name for itself as the developer of several mixed use development projects at North Point in Cambridge, the Government Center Garage Bullfinch Crossing and the New Balance Campus in the Mass Pike, will now begin the process of permitting the site after a lengthy community process with the East Boston and Revere communities.
Last week the Independent Newspaper Group sat down with O’Brien so he could give his vision for the 161 acre site that straddles two cities.
“This is one of the biggest development sites in the Northeast,” said O’Brien, who started his firm in 2010 after working both in New York and later for JPI Development, who specialized in the development of multifamily communities nationwide. “The site is directly connected to two Blue Line (MBTA) stations so we loved it for its Transportation Orientated Development (TOD) potential and the fact nothing like it really exists elsewhere.”
O’Brien said HYM started looking at other properties to develop about a year ago and Suffolk Downs definitely stood out.
“Downtown Boston has become very expensive land wise,” said O’Brien. “After land purchase and construction costs there is only so much people are willing to pay for rent or businesses are willing to pay to occupy office space. Suffolk Downs is still tied to Boston through its connections to the Blue Line but is outside the high cost environment of Downtown Boston.”
As other large development just outside the city limits, like Assembly Row in Somerville, coming online O’Brien felt HYM could use that type of development as a template but improve and expand on it at the Suffolk Downs site.
“Assemble Row became a pretty good template for what we are shooting for,” said O’Brien. “We have spent the last couple of months spending a lot of time with community leaders and elected officials (in both East Boston and Revere) and after about fifty different meetings with all kinds of folks the type of feedback we got, and everyone has literally said to us, ‘if you can recreate something like Assemble Row…if you can replicate that it would be a good thing’. So that’s really out plan.”
O’Brien said HYM’s vision for the site is a large, mixed-use development with retail, entertainment, restaurants and residential.
“If we get the retail right on the first floor levels with a good mix of restaurants and shops, build well designed, relatively affordable units above the retail space and create a grid of streets so people who live, shop and eat there have a real feeling that its a community I think it will be a winner.”
O’Brien said that he has spent a lot of time walking the site and wants to create a development that is not isolated like other large scale development but feels more like part of the East Boston and Revere communities.
“The Beachmont side of the property has a lot of opportunity for reconnection to the surrounding community,” said O’Brien. “The people we’ve talked to there, including Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo and Revere’s Ward 1 City Councillor Joanne McKenna, are really looking for the property to be reconnected to the community. When you sit in Beachmont, you notice a lot of foot traffic from the station but for decades upon decades there’s been that fence and the horse barns. I think once you see the fence come down and those horse barns come down the site will begin to feel more accessible for Beachmont residents and pedestrians.”
Several years ago, when Suffolk Downs first proposed a resort casino at the site while partnered with Caesars Entertainment, Revere felt it was being short changed as most of the entertainment was on the Boston side of the property while the Revere side got horse barns and parking. O’Brien said his firm knows the history and addressed it head on.
“There was some anxiety from folks in Revere that something different was going to happen on the Boston side of the property than on the Revere side,” said O’Brien. “Our plan is to produce one mixed use community across both cities in which the same high quality types of development happen on both sides. We are not going to do something in Revere that is different than what we are doing in Boston. While the property straddles two cities it will be one community.”
O’Brien added that he feels Beachmont has a lot going for it and really thinks it Revere’s turn to shine.
“There a huge amount of opportunity in Revere,” said O’Brien. “You jump on the T and you are only a few stops to downtown, you got this beautiful three-mile long crescent beach in your backyard that is really well cared for so I think a project like this will help that part of Revere really catch on. I know it’s hard to envision now with the fence and horse barns but there is so much potential while still having access to all the amenities of Revere and Boston just a few blocks away.”
While traffic for any large scale development of this magnitude is always at the top of everyone’s mind in East Boston and Revere, O’Brien said one of the biggest differences between HYM’s proposal and the past proposal of the casino is this would be a phased project.
“A casino gets built all at once and exists on day one,” said O’Brien. “So you turn the key and 25,000 people are heading to your site. This project will take us at least 10 years to build out in phases and the traffic impacts do not exist in the first or second phase.”
O’Brien said he has assembled a great team of traffic engineers to not only look at how to potentially reconnect streets but have traffic flow a little bit smother around the site than it currently does.
“We have some different approaches we are working on,” said O’Brien. “But the unique thing here is that as we build in phases we can make adjustments to what is working and what it not working as we move along.”
Addressing Climate Change
O’Brien said he wants HYM’s development of Suffolk Downs to be a model of future large development that addresses climate change.
“As everyone knows there are some significant wetlands on the site,” said O’Brien. “In the past those wetlands have been treated as a nuisance. We look at them not only as an opportunity for an open space network but to use the wetlands as potential storage of water in the event of flooding or storms.”
South Boston-based landscape architecture firm Stoss, which has experience dealing with climate-related issues, will be the landscape architect according to O’Brien.
“This team includes people that have worked all over addressing climate change issues and preparedness,” said O’Brien. “One of the most important things we are focusing on is the potential for flooding and I think we can do something different at this site.”
While it has become the norm for new development to recapture rain water and runoff as well as placing utilities on the top floors rather than the basements, O’Brien said his team is focusing on how to deal with a potential disaster but have the site continue to exist.
“The biggest issue is what do you do with water,” said O’Brien. “You have assume there is going to be flooding incidents in the next 30, 40, 50 years so how do we use our current wetlands on site to store and move the water? These are all the things we are looking at.”
O’Brien said HYM plans to designated 25 to 30 percent of the 161 acres site as open space.
“We really worked hard to balance the appropriate amount of density to create a community but at the same time think of how to create really good open space,” said O’Brien. “Twenty-five to 30 percent is a huge number so out next big challenge is to make sure the open space has different characteristics throughout the site.”
O’Brien said this would include some passive parks, active parks, pocket parks for residents as well as connecting Suffolk Downs’ to open space offsite.
“We want to make sure our open space is somehow connected to existing open space like Belle Isle Marsh, the East Boston Greenway and Revere Beach,” said O’Brien. “There is a variety of opportunity to focus on helping existing environmental groups make those connections.”
O’Brien said he has met with members of the Friends of Belle Isle Marsh and the East Boston Greenway and knows how hard they have worked to advocate for more open space in East Boston and Revere.
“The idea of being able to ride a bike from one end of East Boston near Maverick, through Belle Isle Marsh and onto our site and then to Revere Beach is exciting,” said O’Brien. “There are some challenges but we are just as dedicated to making those connections work as the people who have made them work in the past. It would be a little short sited to focus only on our 161 acres without helping those groups expand their vision. At the end of the day we want to build a great community and make sure that community is connected to the other two great communities that already exist.”