I CLOSELY FOLLOWED the debate around the Boston 2024 Olympics bid, and it seemed odd to me at first, but I just kept connecting it to the gay marriage fight, which I lived through as a citizen of Massachusetts 10 years ago. Eventually, light dawned over the South End and I realized why. Just like the opponents of gay marriage, what the Boston 2024 people were saying made no logical sense. Having spent a majority of my career in the worlds of transportation and economic development, perhaps my BS detector is more sensitive on these issues, which Boston 2024 tried to invoke as the raison d’etre for the Boston Olympics. But the polls showed it wasn’t only me who wasn’t buying it.
The more they talked, the more people started to understand that it couldn’t be about transportation or economic development, or at least not in the way they described it. For a while there I think some people had the impression that, when your city is chosen to host the games, the International Olympics Committee shows up with bags of money and builds all the stuff you always wanted: a 21st Century transportation system, tons of affordable housing, investment in neglected neighborhoods.
Once Olympics skeptics began to question the grandiose statements about economic development and a 21st Century transportation system, things started to become a little clearer. It would actually be the taxpayers (and fare payers) who would be footing the bill for the transportation improvements, which were, Olympics proponents said, “already in the pipeline.” The beauty of the Olympics, the argument now went, was that “there’s nothing like a deadline” to get things done, and the Olympics would be that deadline. I’ve worked on public works projects in two states, including the Big Dig and the Boston Convention Center, and it’s pretty obvious to me that the only thing you get out of being in a rush is a substantially larger bill. What started to become apparent was that there was little connection, never mind causality, between hosting the Olympics and fixing the T. No, it must be about something else.
Next we started hearing about the Olympic athlete’s village that would get built at Columbia Point and how we’d end up with lots of dorm rooms for UMass Boston and affordable housing for regular folks. But isn’t there a Master Plan for Columbia Point, years and many contentious public meetings in the making? How does this artist’s sketch of an Olympic village fit into the Columbia Point Master Plan? If it did fit in with the plan, that would have been a terrific selling point, but in the end we never heard much about that. No, it must be about something else.
Widett Circle, or as they called it, “Midtown”: Ah, now we finally come to it. Crossing from my home in the South End to Southie, as I frequently do on foot and on bike, I know this part of the city from the viewpoint of the two bridges traversing the railroad tracks underneath. (Also, unfortunately, from the depressing city tow lot where everyone is sad or angry and my car has been held for ransom on more than one occasion, but we’re not talking about that.) I’m a transportation and urban policy wonk, so a rail yard to me is a beautiful thing (a tow lot, not so much). But I completely understand that this is not a majority view and that development pressure is pushing hard up against this district in a big way, with residential and mixed use development closing in from both the South End and Southie sides.
So is a rail yard, a tow lot, and a low density industrial zone the best use of this district? Pretty obviously, today there are higher and better uses for this land and it’s probably time to take a look at this area and come up with a plan to manage development in a way that meets the city’s housing and economic development goals, and accommodates the transportation and industrial uses, either within the district or somewhere else. And while it’s easy to become smitten with artist’s renderings of spiffy new residential buildings and beautiful new green spaces, city planning is about accounting for all of the land uses that a functioning city requires, including rail yards and loud, dirty industrial uses.
But what does this have to do with the Olympics? They showed us an 80,000-seat stadium, sitting on a platform built on land where the tow lot and industrial uses now live, and over the rail yard. In the next slide, it was gone. In its place appeared the aforementioned spiffy new residential buildings and beautiful new green spaces. So then, was the IOC going to pay for the platform and to relocate the industrial and transportation uses? No, it seemed, this would be paid for through tax breaks granted to the redeveloper of the site, after the stadium was taken down. In one breath, the hundreds of millions of extra tax dollars generated by redevelopment of the site were the reason to push forward with the Olympics, and in the next, they were given away as tax breaks to pay for the platform over the rail yard and relocation of the other uses. Which might actually make some sense as part of a redevelopment plan for the district, but a connection was never made with the Olympic stadium. How did the stadium, and its subsequent disappearance (at a cost of hundreds of millions), contribute to the transformation of the city tow lot into Midtown?
Olympics proponents like to say that just planning for the Olympics results in good ideas coming to the surface. So we can perhaps take some consolation in the fact that we are all looking at this district with a fresh eye. Maybe this whole exercise will result in the creation of a redevelopment plan, and then a whole new neighborhood, linking Southie with the South End and Back Bay in a way it isn’t now, and the reconnection of the Broadway station area to downtown when the Post Office central mail facility finally decamps to another site.
But, just like the folks opposing gay marriage 10 years ago couldn’t convince us of their position because their arguments didn’t make logical sense, neither could the folks at Boston 2024 convince us that hosting the Olympics was going to fix the T, create affordable housing, or redevelop Widett Circle. In the end, their arguments just didn’t make sense either.
Peter O’Connor, a former city and state government official, is an attorney and development consultant in Boston’s South End. He can be reached at email@example.com.