I’ve been supporting the community activists in East Boston who are working mightily to oppose the proposed Suffolk Downs casino. These activists are not simply saying “no” to the casino – they are also advancing a positive, forward-looking vision for the site and their community, one that focuses on attracting 21st century jobs to a sustainable development site. My support for their efforts has nothing to do with my personal views about gambling – I’m rather agnostic about that. My support has everything to do with my view that the process surrounding gaming on this site has been rigged, that the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box is being ignored or given short shrift, and that the people of East Boston are once again being dealt a bad hand by those who would put profit before people.
In the 1960s and 1970s, East Boston was challenged by a series of transportation planning decisions that threatened to snuff out the vitality and the viability of the close-knit middle class neighborhood. The construction of the Callahan tunnel, the Route 1A viaduct, and the expansion of Logan Airport were carried out with little consideration of the community’s quality of life. Entire streets were demolished and obliterated from the map, and the burdens of noise and air pollution and traffic congestion had a negative impact on the desirability of the community as a residential neighborhood. East Boston endured much, but it fought back.
East Boston’s fate was thought to have been sealed by the brutal forces of mid-20th century transportation planning, but the people took their future into their own hands. A group of citizen activists had their fill of transportation “progress” and famously put an end to the era of demolition and displacement when mothers pushed baby carriages into the middle of Maverick Street to stop a parade of dump trucks from disrupting their peace and endangering their safety. Massport was forced to find a less intrusive way to expand its footprint when the mothers refused to leave, and the Mayor (Kevin White) stood shoulder to shoulder with them.
It’s been a long time since the Maverick Street mothers took to the streets. In the intervening years, the community has developed a rapprochement of sorts with Massport, and has focused on developing itself as an affordable, transit-oriented neighborhood with great public parks and stunning harbor views. The result has been the resurgence of East Boston – one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, boasting two of the city’s most beautiful passive and active parks, and one of the most important urban wetland resources in Massachusetts. East Boston took its future into its own hands, and did more than survive – it succeeded, and in many ways it is a model of what a multi-ethnic mixed income urban environment ought to be.
This progress is being directly jeopardized by the prospect of a casino at Suffolk Downs. What’s worse, when East Boston voters resoundingly voted against the casino, the immediate response (of doubtful legality) was to fashion an electoral bait-and-switch by offering a supposedly “Revere-only” casino site. The Revere-only proposal is an insult to East Boston’s intelligence, not simply because such an outcome is not practically feasible (unless the owners are prepared to accept a perpetual restriction on the use of their East Boston land for non-casino uses), but also because it proposes to relocate horse stables and highways on the East Boston side of the site. Imagine that you are the mayor of Boston, and you have a 100-acre, largely undeveloped site in your city that is two minutes away from an international airport and adjacent to two MBTA stations and an urban wetland. And the owner tells you he wants to use the land for horse stables and a roadway system to feed into another city. You might throw that person out of your office, or at least question his sanity. But that is exactly what Suffolk Downs is proposing to do on this site.
The Suffolk Downs proposal currently before the Gaming Commission would have devastating transportation impacts on East Boston, the city, and the region. It would make the Ted Williams tunnel and the approaches to it significantly more congested and less functional. It would turn many streets in East Boston into mini-highways, diminishing pedestrian safety and convenience, making local traffic even more challenging, driving up local auto insurance rates, and driving down property values. No mitigation package will ever make East Boston residents whole for those additional auto insurance costs or for the loss in their property values.
Suffolk Downs proposes spending less than $50 million on transportation improvements, including a flyover in Boston that would be an eyesore and would not solve the current traffic congestion problem. Moreover, there is no enforceable private sector commitment to pay for costly maintenance of this infrastructure over time. It would require the state and the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on transportation improvements to the highway, roadway, and transit systems, and it would trigger a transportation maintenance bill that would be a drain on other more pressing needs throughout the Commonwealth. There is currently not one nickel in any current or proposed state transportation plan for any of these improvements or maintenance costs – what other projects in other regions of the state will have to be put on hold to pay for this?
The good news is that East Boston has developed its own positive vision for the site – one that could be a win-win for all parties. The citizen-driven statement of “Overarching Principles for Development in East Boston” approaches its task as “driven by a commitment to work with public sector officials, community members, private sector developers, and investors to ensure this critical and unique site is developed sustainably and in a way that enhances quality of life, job creation, and return on investment.” The five principles are: (1) job creation – 21st century jobs that enable East Boston residents to share in the opportunity of a broad spectrum of jobs, (2) community inclusion & transparency, (3) environmental impact – a commitment to an ecologically sustainable development at Suffolk Downs is easily accessible by public transport, promotes public health and safety, and improves the overall quality of life for residents in bordering neighborhoods, (4) transit-oriented development, and (5) economic feasibility – acknowledgement that the private sector is entitled to profit from its development, fulfilling a viable market opportunity that will ultimately drive local economic growth and encourage local investment.
This is a positive and forward looking platform for development in East Boston and the Suffolk Downs site. There is no question that the uses currently proposed for the Boston portion of the site make no sense for either the public or private sector interests.
Some casino advocates argue that the owners of Suffolk Downs are entitled to do whatever they want with the land they own, but that is 19th century thinking. In our times, appropriate public regulation of land use and development is neither novel nor controversial. What’s more, the Suffolk Downs site is valuable and strategic in large part because of massive public investments – investments in the transit stations, the airport, and the current roadway system. The public interest – East Boston’s and the region’s – requires that the private sector and the public sector work with impacted citizens to find solutions that everyone can accept as fair and forward looking. There can be an outcome that everyone can embrace, but that outcome will only be reached once the ill-advised casino proposal is finally rejected (either by the Gaming Commission or by a court, or by the people at the ballot box if the proposed initiative repeal is given a green light).
East Boston residents have a long and rich history of fighting for their survival, and insisting on a future that is bright, optimistic, and uplifting. They took their future into their own hands once before, and they are doing it again. That’s why I’m on their side.
Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.