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Suffolk Downs redevelopment secures BPDA approval amid calls for more affordable housing

New Developments News East Boston
A rendering of Belle Isle Square, part of the planned redevelopment of Suffolk Downs.
A rendering of Belle Isle Square, part of the planned redevelopment of Suffolk Downs. HYM Investment Group

A massive development that will essentially bring a mini-city to the former site of the Suffolk Downs racetrack notched a key approval from the Boston Planning and Development Agency early Friday morning.

Officials unanimously backed the project, which, over a 20-year span, will usher in 10,000 apartments and condominiums, with offices, stores, hotels, and other amenities across more than 10.5 million square feet straddling the East Boston and Revere border.

“I don’t know what could be better,” BPDA board member Mike Monahan said, The Boston Globe reported. “This, in my opinion, is a no-brainer.”

The vote, concluding a seven-hour special meeting that began Thursday evening, was taken three years after the public review process before the BPDA started.

One of the largest private developments in Boston’s history, the project, backed by developer HYM Investment Group, will boast a population roughly the size of Back Bay when complete.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to create this new neighborhood from the ground up,” Tom O’Brien, HYM Investment Group managing director, said in a statement to the Globe. “We look forward to moving ahead towards building a new future at Suffolk Downs.”

According to plans filed with the BPDA, the $8 billion project will be completed in five phases and will generate 14,000 construction jobs. Of those voicing support for the development Thursday were local union construction workers, who highlighted HYM’s agreements to hire and train East Boston residents for those jobs, the Globe reported.

A rendering of what Suffolk Downs could look like when the 161-acre site is fully built. —HYM Investment Group LLC

When built, the development will support 25,000 to 30,000 permanent jobs.

But concerns about affordable housing and exactly what impact such a development would have on neighborhood rents have remained at the forefront of worries for many other residents who’ve spoken out against the project.

“What you are hearing tonight is Eastie residents trying to place this project in context,” Brittany Thomas, a staff member at community radio station Zumix, said. “Housing is at the crux of our neighborhood’s well-being. This is the kind of project that defines a city, and how we choose to use [this site] says everything about who we prioritize.”

HYM has set aside 930 affordable units under the city-required 13 percent threshold and has pledged a $5 million investment to the Housing Stabilization Fund for an additional 400 units off-site, or another 7 percent.

The average two-bedroom apartment at the development would cost roughly $1,492 a month for a family of four whose annual income is just over $79,000, or 70 percent of the area median income (AMI).

Critics have said that is simply not realistic for East Boston families. The neighborhood’s median household income is $53,000, the Globe reported.

“We need affordable housing now; we’re a working-class community,” a woman, who identified herself only as Alejandra, told the board, The Boston Herald reported.

According to the BPDA, units will be available to people earning as low as 30 percent of AMI “and will be marketed to individuals and families that hold rental vouchers.”

“None of the income-restricted affordable units will exceed 100 percent AMI,” the BPDA said in a statement Friday. “BPDA will work closely with the City of Boston Disabilities Commission to ensure that the required build-out of income-restricted disability preference units are available to the appropriate households.”

The project marks the city’s largest one-time influx of affordable housing units in decades, although activists and city officials have maintained that negotiations on the project are far from over. With the BPDA vote in-hand, the review process moves to the Boston Zoning Commission.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who spoke in support of the project, said she was negotiating with developers up until about a half-hour before Thursday’s meeting started, according to the Herald.

“I haven’t heard anyone actually say that they don’t want this to happen,” said Edwards, who also acknowledged that the project presented a significant opportunity for East Boston.

Earlier this week, Edwards outlined to constituents what advances her office and other groups want to see in the continuing talks, including making the affordability of two- and three-bedroom units “more representative of East Boston” within the project’s first two phases.

“A lot of the conversations, a lot of the negotiations, and a lot of the continued fight for additional housing or additional affordability will continue after Thursday,” Edwards said Tuesday. “But on Thursday, we’re making sure we’re all clear about what the minimums are and what the floors are.”

BPDA Board member Carol Downs said Thursday that local fears of displacement are “real and ought not to be dismissed,” according to the Herald.

Some activists this week pushed for the board to postpone its vote until more affordable housing was included in the project plans.

“We are going to do our share of what is required to deal with the housing crisis,” O’Brien said, the newspaper reported.

But, he added, “We’re at the point where we can do no more than what we’ve done so far.”

Board member Ted Landsmark said holding off on the vote would not be the right approach.

“We have delayed some projects, and when we do, the development money goes away and nothing gets built,” Landsmark said, noting a delay here would also prolong the needed economic stimulus.

The project is also slated to pour $170 million into new sidewalks, bicycle paths, and roadways; improve Route 1A;  include flood protections; funnel more than $20 million in investments to the MBTA; and create 40 acres of open space, with 27 acres in East Boston and 13 in Revere.

City officials in Revere, home to roughly one-third of the site, approved the project in 2018.

Construction is slated to start in Revere first, with developers eyeing early next year for the groundbreaking. Phase two, which would span 11 buildings near the Suffolk Downs MBTA Station in East Boston, would begin two years later.

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