By John Lynds
Owners of Suffolk Downs Racetrack HYM INvestment Group LLC and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) held an Impact Advisory Group (IAG) meeting last Wednesday at the racetrack.
At the meeting HYM’s Principal Partner Tom O’Brien briefed IAG members and residents on Phase 1 of the project. With the BPDA’s public comment period set to expire today (January 10) the city agency and HYM focused last week’s meeting on Phase I of the project. HYM is seeking a zoning change and expedited review from MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act) for Phase I. The reason for the expedited review is due to Suffolk Downs being connected to the city’s bid for Seattle-based Amazon’s second North American Headquarters (H2Q). Amazon needs a zoning and building available by 2019, and if it choses Boston as its host city.
Phase I will consist of two 260,000-square-foot office buildings located in the southeast corner of the site next to the Suffolk Downs MBTA Blue Line Station. The submissions made for these buildings include full studies of traffic, drainage, greenhouse gas emissions, energy utilization, climate change resiliency, and historic, wind, shadow and daylight impacts.
These two buildings represent a tiny portion of the entire development–less than four percent of the total floor area which can be constructed at Suffolk Downs under current zoning regulations. These two initial buildings would be constructed to LEED Gold environmental standards and the only vehicle access will be through the existing vehicle entrances to Suffolk Downs.
At the meeting O’Brien unveiled some mitigation plans that would be connected to Phase I, and includes $3.5 million to the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and $700,000 to the city’s Jobs Fund. HYM also plans to improve safety and signage on Route 1A and Tomasello Way; signal timing changes on Winthrop Avenue; the creation of a new Hubway Station to add to Eastie’s Hubway bike-share program; a new plaza, enhanced landscaping and a seating area; new passive and active community open space; new roads and sidewalks; and a payment of $375,000 for inflow and infiltration used to improve efficiency to sewer systems on site.
O’Brien also said that if Amazon does not come to Boston but Phase I is permitted by the BPDA and MEPA the plan would be to market the site as a ‘shovel ready parcel once considered by Amazon’ .
“We would try and market the Phase I plans to other tech companies and if there are no bites we’ll revert that portion of the project back to residential and retail,” said O’Brien.
However, O’Brien added that any major change of use that was approved by the BPDA would have to come back before the community and HYM would have to file a Notice of Project Change.
“We can’t build these buildings unless there is a tenant,” said O’Brien. “We are spending money right now with the possibility of attracting Amazon that we would otherwise not be spending–money on design, marketing, permitting to make Phase I deliverable to Amazon if Boston is in fact chosen as the H2Q site.”
Following the meeting several IAG members and residents weighed in on the BPDA process thus far.
“The process for Phase I and the master plan are moving very quickly,” said Alex DeFronzo. “The format of the first two IAG meetings has largely been a lecture-style presentation where HYM has provided information, but the IAG has not had much opportunity to talk about mitigating impacts. I am not 100 percent confident that the neighborhood is aware that HYM plans to raise the majority of the 161 acre site by about 4′ by trucking in thousands of cubic yards of soil, and that most of the buildings on the site will be 7-12 stories tall. Given that the public comment period for Phase I closes January 10 I encourage neighbors to take a close look and raise any concerns they may have.”
DeFronzo added that while he was appreciative of the mitigation proposed by HYM for the Phase I development, he hopes to work with his colleagues on the IAG to negotiate a broader, more comprehensive, and more positive outcome for East Boston.
“The infrastructure improvements proposed need to happen regardless, we should work to ensure that affordable housing payments stay in East Boston and that we secure a community benefits agreement appropriate for the Phase I, 520,000 sq. ft. commercial development,” he said.
Meg Hammond said that while she feels the meetings are organized she feels like Phase 1 needs to be addressed before there’s any talk about master planning mitigation.
“The deadline of January 19 does not give appropriate timing for the IAG, community and municipal departments to synthesize the information,” she said. “Additionally, the committee wants to have a cohesive and transparent mitigation outline that is binding and concurrent with the Phase 1 Construction. Items on the mitigation list are misrepresented, as the affordable housing ratio is mandated by federal and state laws and must be adhered to regardless. It is important to move through the IAG process looking at the long term proactively, and not in a rushed and reactionary manner.”
Eastie resident and local environmental activist Kannan Thiruvengadam feels the BPDA needs to do more to engage more residents outside of the IAG for feedback.
“The comment period feels super-short for a humongous project like this one,” said Thiruvengadam. “There have not been a lot of comments heading into the end of the Public Comment Period. That shows the community is either unaware or has not had the opportunity to digest the information enough to provide feedback. The official closing of the comment period triggers the next step in the process. The IAG should meet on their own, should be able to set the agenda and conduct the meeting in order to do justice to the job they have been given.”