IT’S EITHER A huge environmental win and boon to a working-class community that’s been saddled with a contaminated brownfield, or a sneaky backroom deal that short-circuited public process to deliver a huge prize to a connected billionaire.
The Legislature is on the brink of signing off on a plan that clears the way for the Kraft Group to build a soccer stadium for the New England Revolution along the Mystic River in Everett, but the behind-the-scenes sausage-making that has brought the plan to the goal crease deserves cheers or jeers, depending on who you listen to.
The Senate approved a supplemental budget measure on Tuesday that includes a provision stripping a 43-acre parcel that now houses a shuttered power plant of its state zoning label as a Designated Port Area, a status that requires certain waterfront parcels to be maintained for industrial or port-related uses. The measure still must be agreed to by the House in a final version of the budget package before lawmakers adjourn for the year at midnight tonight, but the House approved similar language governing the Everett parcel a year ago.
By attaching the zoning change to the spending bill, lawmakers skirted the standard process of advancing the proposal through a standalone piece of legislation, or seeking to remove the port designation through regulatory changes. Both of those approaches would have involved public hearings and a more deliberative weighing of the pros and cons of such a change, says Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation
“It’s an end-run around what should be a thoughtful process in deciding what our waterfront looks like, and it’s essentially a special deal for one powerful developer,” said Campbell, whose group has voiced strong objections to the move.
Sen. Sal DiDomenico, who represents Everett and has led the push for the DPA change, sees it very differently. While conceding that the land rezoning has not followed the conventional legislative or regulatory process, DiDomenico says that approach could have delayed approval for so long that the Krafts looked elsewhere for a stadium site. The result would have been a contaminated waterfront parcel that he said developers are not beating down the door to clean up and put to new use.
Last month, Campbell penned an op-ed in CommonWealth Beacon decrying the “backroom deal” that he said was in the works on Beacon Hill.
What Campbell did not say, however, is that he and CLF were at one point in that backroom.
DiDomenico said over the summer he began convening a broad set of stakeholders, including city officials, community leaders, and groups like CLF to discuss the possible move to remove the port designation from the waterfront parcel. The first such gathering, he said, took place during a walk-through at the site itself.
“I brought all the parties together,” said DiDomenico. “CLF was a part of the process from the very beginning and they had every opportunity to speak about what was important to them.”
Campbell said CLF initially took part in those discussions, but only because of the difficult situation the group was put in.
“We participated in some discussions, and explored ways in which both the process and the actual impacts of the proposal might be limited or mitigated,” he said, but ultimately concluded that it “was not a productive process.”
Campbell said CLF was not happy about going around the public review process, but felt compelled “to consider what the risks are in not at least exploring those discussions on a proposal that might go forward anyway.” Had the group not been willing to at least engage in initial conversations on changes to the land designation, Campbell said, CLF would be accused of stonewalling the issue and declining to provide any input when asked.
“They would be saying, well, they refused to talk to us,” he said. “So there’s no winning in this.”
In the end, he said, CLF was not satisfied with the proposal.
Unlike the House language approved last year, which never advanced further, the measure making its way through the Legislature says the land will revert to Designated Port Status if the Kraft soccer stadium plan does not go through. The plan also must still undergo state environmental review and comply with Chapter 91, the state law governing public access to waterfront sites.
DiDomenico insists that there has, in fact, been broad community engagement on the proposal in Everett.
“This was a very robust public process,” he said. “This wasn’t the traditional way they might have wanted it,” he said of CLF and Boston Harbor Now, another environmental group critical of the legislative move. But DiDomenico said he has helped convene more than a dozen community meetings in Everett, from gatherings at a local Haitian church to civic group sessions, where the plan was shared and received widespread support.
“The way I did outreach in my community, it touched way more people than they would have,” he said of more formal Beacon Hill hearings.
Campbell says the stadium project will have impacts on traffic and air quality far beyond Everett, and the state port designation is meant to consider regional needs, not just those of one community.
CLF says the Mystic River waterfront in Everett could play a critical role in the state’s offshore wind industry, with the former power plant site ideally suited to serve as a connection point linking offshore power lines to the region’s electric grid.
DiDomenico says there is plenty of land remaining at the site that retains DPA status and could serve that purpose. “We can do both,” he said of building a stadium and preserving crucial port uses.
On Monday, city officials in Everett announced terms of an agreement with the Kraft Group that include $5 million for a new community center, $10 million for an affordable housing fund, and setting aside four acres of the parcel for a public park.
“It’s really a win for all of us,” said DiDomenico. “This is not about anyone who has that land. This is about what’s best for my community.”