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Advocates Call For More Affordable Housing As BPDA Is Set To Vote On Massive Suffolk Downs Development04:45
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The Suffolk Downs race track in East Boston is set to be redeveloped into a new neighborhood by HYM  Investment Group. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Suffolk Downs race track in East Boston is set to be redeveloped into a new neighborhood by HYM Investment Group. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Boston Planning and Development Agency is set to vote Thursday night on the largest new development Boston has seen in decades. The Suffolk Downs redevelopment proposal would create 10,000 units of housing and promises to create an entire new neighborhood between East Boston and Revere.

But advocates for affordable housing say the proposal represents a lost opportunity to create a 21st century community — one that reflects a new approach to equity.

They say the developer is catering mostly to luxury renters, and the massive new development will deepen the housing crisis for the low income residents, largely immigrants, who have long called East Boston home.

On Tuesday, advocates rallied at City Hall, calling on Mayor Marty Walsh to postpone the BPDA vote.

"Gentrification displaces peoples and cultures. Luxury development, like HYM Suffolk Downs redevelopment, displaces Black, brown, immigrant and indigenous students like me, and small homeowners like my parents," said Maria Carolina Ticona at City Hall Tuesday. She is part of the PUEBLO Coalition, which formed in opposition to the proposed $8 billion development.

East Boston resident Maria Carolina Ticona speaks during a rally at City Hall, calling for an increase in the number of affordable units for a proposed development at Suffolk Downs. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
East Boston resident Maria Carolina Ticona speaks during a rally at City Hall, calling for an increase in the number of affordable units for a proposed development at Suffolk Downs. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s not every day that Boston sees a single development of this scale — 161 acres of land. That's more than three times the size of Boston Common. If approved, the project would be built over the next 20 years.

A third of the new neighborhood would be in Revere, which has already approved its portion. The rest is in Boston, and that’s what’s on the table at Thursday evening's BPDA hearing.

O'Brien, who ran the city's planning agency in the 1990s, runs HYM Investment Group. HYM bought the former racetrack in 2017. The property became part of the city’s bid to attract Amazon to Boston, but when that didn’t happen, HYM put forward its current proposal.

Tom O’Brien of the HYM Development Group at Suffolk Downs. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tom O’Brien of the HYM Development Group at Suffolk Downs. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I've been working on this for a long, long time, this kind of business, and I can tell you that the region needs thousands and thousands of units of housing. And we can also build a terrific amount of open space," he said. "If you live here, you’re certainly welcome, but if you don’t live here and you want to go for a walk or go to a restaurant, everybody’s welcome here."

But activists are worried that everybody won’t be welcome at the new Suffolk Downs.

Under Boston’s guidelines, 13% of the units are required to be affordable. Activists think 50% the units should be affordable.

Affordable housing advocates gathered for a rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday ahead of the BPDA's vote on the Suffolk Downs redevelopment. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Affordable housing advocates gathered for a rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday ahead of the BPDA's vote on the Suffolk Downs redevelopment. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In response to pressure from local officials, O’Brien says his company will fund additional affordable housing in East Boston, amounting to more than 1,400 new units in the neighborhood. City officials say that’s the largest number of income restricted units in a single private development in Boston — ever.

Some residents of Orient Heights, which is near Suffolk Downs, say that is enough. Here’s Chris Asante, who leads a neighborhood association there:

"I think at the end, the day, the wants and needs of Orient Heights are different," says Chris Asante, who leads the neighborhood association. "Every neighborhood is different."

But Gabriela Cartagena — a lifelong East Boston resident and member of the PUEBLO Coalition — says the interests of a group of homeowners are different than the needs of East Boston generally.

And she takes issue with the definition of affordable housing — affordable for who, she asks.

"We hear the mayor say that we need to build more to fix this housing crisis. But we are seeing more development, but we're not seeing an actual solution to the housing crisis. We're just seeing displacement numbers rise."

Organizer and East Boston resident Gabriela Cartagena speaks to supporters during a rally in front of City Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Organizer and East Boston resident Gabriela Cartagena speaks to supporters during a rally in front of City Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There are different brackets of affordable housing, for people with different incomes, and the city has negotiated with the developer to include a greater range of incomes.
But activists say even more units should be dedicated to people at the bottom of the income scale.

O’Brien says the numbers just wouldn’t work. The company would need billions in government subsidies and, he says, that’s simply not going to happen in the current political climate.

"At a certain point, the issue for the housing activist is, if you if you push it too hard, then you end up with zero, because these are not then financeable buildings and so nothing gets built here. And that would be a lost opportunity."

But to advocates, the lost opportunity is in the Suffolk Downs proposal itself.

They say such a massive plot inside Boston is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a neighborhood for everyone.

The hearing on the Suffolk Downs redevelopment is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

This segment aired on September 24, 2020.

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