By John Lynds
In 2013 the residents of East Boston spoke loud and clear when they voted to reject a resort-style casino from coming to Suffolk Downs Racetrack. After the vote came the inevitable question of ‘what’s next?’ for the aging thoroughbred racetrack. For the past four years residents have advocated for a smart development at the 161-acre site.
When Thomas O’Brien’s development firm HYM bought the track in May, he laid out a vision for the site that seemed to get little if no resistance from the neighborhood’s community groups. O’Brien’s plan to provide a mixed use development with dozens of acres of open space was music to Eastie resident’s ears after several year of battling casino gaming in the community.
Then, a few weeks ago, came news that Seattle-based Amazon was looking for a city to anchor their second head quarters (HQ2) somewhere in North America and began soliciting bids from interested cities.
Last Friday, Mayor Martin Walsh announced that Boston submitted a bid to Amazon and hopes to bring the retail giant to Suffolk Downs. Walsh, in partnership with Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, released a proposal the two said celebrates the talented workforce, diverse communities, strong connectivity and transportation infrastructure, and culture of innovation in Boston and the surrounding region.
“We are excited to present the best of Boston to Amazon, with support from leaders in the educational, business and philanthropic communities and our neighbors in Revere, as the company considers locations for their second corporate headquarters in North America,” said Mayor Walsh. “With the recent completion of the first citywide plan in decades, this is a unique opportunity to build on the strengths and act on the goals set by residents in Imagine Boston 2030 to grow inclusively. Boston is a thriving city and we invite Amazon to grow with us.”
In the bid submitted by the city, Suffolk Downs is featured in the proposal as a “single-owner, transit-friendly, 160-acre open canvas that is close to the waterfront, the airport, and downtown, and served by two existing Blue Line stations. Identified in Imagine Boston 2030 as a transformational opportunity for a new mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood with significant potential for investment in Boston and Revere, Suffolk Downs is one of the largest development sites in the Northeast and, in addition to meeting Amazon’s current goals for HQ2, has the flexibility to evolve with the ever-changing needs of the company.”
The city’s Economic Development Chief John Barros said Boston is by far the top city when it comes to workforce talent, educational institutions, research facilities and continues to rank high as a innovation economy. But it is Eastie’s vibrancy and diversity, he said, that made choosing Suffolk Downs a no brainer.
“This is a great neighborhood in a great part of the city,” said Barros. “East Boston is super diverse and exciting and has the kind of amenities people want to be next to and the kind of place we feel Amazon wants to be.”
According to Amazon, the company expects to, “invest over $5 billion in construction and grow this second headquarters to include as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs” over the next 15 years, in addition to, “tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community.”
Barros said the city had reached out to small businesses all around Eastie to get feedback on what they thought of an potential Amazon bid.
“We wanted to get a sense of what East Boston business owners wanted to see at the site and virtually all said Amazon was the right proposal because the kind of money people would be spending in the neighborhood as a result of a development like Amazon is a pretty significant economic impact,” said Barros.
HYM owner Thomas O’Brien said his firm’s development plan is the same with or without Amazon.
“Obviously we feel really good,” said O’Brien. “Boston proposed such a good bid. When you review what some of the other cities prepared I think you will find both Mayor Walsh and Mayor Arrigo put together a really strong bid. With that said our plan is the same with or without Amazon. At the end of the day we want to build a large mixed use development with amenities and greenspace that is second to none.”
O’Brien said Amazon would require up to 100 acres for its HQ2 proposal and Suffolk Downs is really the only place in Boston that can accommodate that ask.
If Boston wins the bid and Amazon needs the 100 acres that would leave HYM with 61 acres to build on. O’Brien said that the reaming 61 acres is still a significant chuck of developable land and pointed to Assembly Row, which hoovers around 45 acres.
“However, we are holding fast on our commitments to greenspace, a strong retail component and workforce housing,” said O’Brien. “We want to make sure the open space gets delivered, retail gets delivered, housing gets delivered. But those are the things Amazon is looking for and if you read their RFP they want to go to an interesting community with interesting retail and open space. I think Amazon is going to like East Boston and Revere because they want to be in a real place and not some industrial park off a highway.”
Members of Eastie’s community groups were for the most part positive of the Amazon news but remained cautious of its impacts.
“If Amazon does not inhibit the principal Suffolk Downs redevelopment project or take too much acreage, then it probably would be a good thing for East Boston and Revere,” said Gove Street Citizens Association Co-Chair Jack Scalcione.
Chair of the Harbor View Neighborhood Association Matthew Barison said his members made clear that any development must be coupled with major infrastructure investments, such as improvements to Route 1A, increased capacity and expansion of the Blue Line, and potential water transportation.
“HYM has been proactive on reaching out to community groups about the master redevelopment and we hope that any discussions of public subsidies, such as tax breaks, to be offered to Amazon are likewise handled in a transparent and honest manner,” he said. “The Amazon component of the Suffolk Downs redevelopment presents a major opportunity to add new, well paying jobs to the area, as opposed to lower wage retail jobs. Whether or not the site is selected, we remain focused on the broader project’s potential to provide economic development, improved green space, cultural and recreational opportunities to the community.
Eagle Hill Civic Association President Debra Cave added that, “through thoughtful development including affordable housing, improved traffic flow and open space for the community, I think Amazon would be a great fit for Suffolk Downs. It would bring new employment opportunities to East Boston and beyond.”
In a joint statement Rep. Adrian Madaro, Sen. Joseph Boncore and City Councilor Sal LaMattina said, “Amazon represents a unique opportunity for economic development in East Boston and Revere,” said Senator Boncore. Still, we will work to ensure that this remains an open and transparent process and that we address community concerns like transportation and housing.”