Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Suffolk Downs was the place to be. Horseracing was wildly popular here (and throughout the country), and tens of thousands of visitors regularly jammed the racetrack’s stands. In the following decades, attendance dropped off, slowly at first and then more dramatically. By the time Suffolk Downs ran its final live race last June, the crowds had dwindled to a trickle.
But crowds of people will once again be flocking to the site.
When a deal to build the Boston-area casino at the forlorn racetrack fell apart, the HYM Investment Group swooped in with plan B: an enormous development project that will essentially create a new neighborhood from the ground up. How enormous? At 161 acres, the property is about the size of the North End. Plans call for 16 million square feet of development. That’s more than double the size of the Boston Seaport development, which, up to this point, has been hailed as the largest single real estate project in the city’s history. Suffolk Downs, therefore, will handily take the crown as Boston’s largest redevelopment project.
“We’re used to working on big projects. But, I can’t think of one that comes close to this,” says Tim Fandel, business manager for Local 12. Estimated to take about 15 years to fully build out, the Suffolk Downs project will create 14,000 construction jobs. “It will literally mean millions of hours for Local 12 members,” Fandel adds.
To launch the massive project, HYM, general contractor John Moriarty & Associates, and the area’s building trades unions worked together to develop a project labor agreement (PLA). The pact is the largest private sector PLA ever signed in the region.
A huge boost for Building Pathways
The Suffolk Downs redevelopment will be entirely union-built. The agreement spells out collective bargaining provisions for the building trades that will work at the site.
“The PLA guarantees living wages with benefits, support of apprenticeship programs–all the things that unions represent,” says Fandel. It is also a document that all parties will be able to use as a collaborative tool throughout the lifecycle of the project, an important consideration given the extensive duration of the buildout. “Because the project will span so many years, the PLA will allow for continuity and consistency, regardless of changes in leadership, changing economic conditions, contract negotiations, or other factors,” Fandel notes.
Straddling two communities, 60% of the Suffolk Downs site is located in East Boston with 40% of it based in Revere. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, and Boston City Councilor (representing East Boston) Lydia Edwards were supportive of all stakeholders and the project’s community process and strived to ensure that all voices were part of the discussion. In addition to involving the leaders, HYM has conducted extensive outreach to engage the community at large. The company has worked hard to get organizations and individuals to buy into the project.
According to Tom O’Brien, HYM founding partner and managing director, he has held over 450 meetings over a two-year period to discuss the proposed Suffolk Downs redevelopment. Some were large-scale community meetings, others were one-on-one chats across a kitchen table. Those give-and-take discussions helped shape the plans and goals for the project. Community issues also factor into the PLA governing the project.
For example, HYM is committing $2 million to equity and inclusion initiatives as part of the agreement. $1 million will be targeted to Building Pathways, an apprentice preparedness program that provides training and advocacy for women and people of color seeking employment in the construction industry. Its graduates have joined the ranks of Local 12. Mayor Walsh founded the program when he was head of the area’s building trades.
“Building Pathways is the vanguard for outreach and recruitment to underrepresented groups in construction,” says Brian Doherty, the current secretary treasurer and general agent of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District. “It’s been such a game changer and has made a huge impact for a lot of people as well as the industry as a whole.”
Since its launch in 2011, Building Pathways has enrolled 343 participants, 86% of whom are people of color and 42% of whom are women. It boasts a graduation rate of 93% and a placement rate of 80% in union apprenticeships or industry-related employment.
Mary Vogel, the executive director of Building Pathways, is grateful for the PLA earmark and says that it will be used to sustain and expand the organization and its mission. She hopes to move into a larger space that can better accommodate the growing program. On her wish list is an in-house shop facility that could be used for hands-on training.
Beyond the financial support, Vogel notes that the Suffolk Downs PLA addresses important issues such as specifying that a percentage of the project’s construction jobs be reserved for apprentices and that a percentage of the apprentices be Building Pathways graduates. “The PLA’s equity provisions will not only increase participation of women and people of color in the building trades, but also help create a respectful and welcoming workplace,” she says.
“We worked collectively, all parties, to make sure diversity and equity are front and center in this pact,” Doherty adds.
Housing will be a key component
So, what will be built at the former racetrack? 10 million square feet, or 63% of the project, will be devoted to housing. The new construction will make a significant dent in the area’s acute housing needs. Commercial, office, and lab space, will account for 5 million square feet, and hotel and retail will occupy the remaining 1 million square feet of development.
“The retail is what we would call ‘neighborhood retail.’ It’s restaurants and small shops, not big-box retail,” says HYM’s O’Brien. That makes sense, because there will be lots of neighbors moving onto the site.
10,000 housing units, including apartments, condos, townhouses, and single-family homes, are planned and an estimated 15,000 people will eventually live in the new neighborhood. 930 of the on-site units will be affordable. HYM is pledging to build and preserve another 500 units of affordable housing offsite in East Boston. The Suffolk Downs redevelopment will create more affordable units in Boston than any other single project.
Bounded by major roads, the site, as it currently stands, is physically cut off from East Boston and Revere. HYM has plans to connect the new neighborhood to the larger community via infrastructure improvements valued at $367 million. “It’s our obligation to build all of the roads, parks, water, sewer–everything,” O’Brien says. A quarter of the site will be dedicated to open space. “We think that’s a terrific way to build community and make sure that even if you don’t live or work there, everyone will be welcome there,” he adds.
One of the ways that the Suffolk Downs site is connected to the community, and one of its greatest attributes, is that two Blue Line MBTA stations are located on its eastern border. It is a short ride to Logan Airport and about a 15-minute ride to downtown Boston.The project is scheduled to break ground later this year.