Original image via Boston 2024
There was an interesting story last week about Widett Circle, that hot tamale wedge of turf between South Boston and the Southeast Expressway where organizers want to put their coliseum for the 2024 Olympics. I’m not talking about the page one Boston Globe piece from Friday, which explained the history behind the New Boston Food Market Development Corporation located in Widett, but instead about an obscure email blast and blog post by Shirley Kressel, a Back Bay resident and longtime critic of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Kressel has been trying to sound an alarm about the land within Widett, a public road encircling more than 15 of the roughly 80 acres that Olympic planners are eyeing in this industrial valley. An epicenter for seafood and meat wholesalers, the New Boston Food Market located inside of Widett was relatively unknown to outsiders until last year, when the Boston Globe reported that New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft had an interest in a neighboring parcel, and the Dorchester Reporter broke news that Boston 2024 was sweet on the encompassing lotted area. (The City of Boston as well as the Commonwealth, Amtrak, and a private company own the other land comprising what Olympic planners have ambitiously dubbed “Midtown.”)
But even with all of the articles that have dropped on the topic in the time since, one apparently critical point has been left out. To quote Kressel: “People are not understanding the importance of one fact: The Boston Redevelopment Authority owns a piece of Widett Circle land—the piece right in the middle of where the stadium would sit.”
Kressel mentioned this to me two weeks ago, but DigBoston readers, at least in my experience, aren’t too hot in the pants for real estate scoops, sexy and related to the Summer Games as they may be. But in seeing how the Globe answered the questions posed in the headline of its Friday print edition—“WHO, WHERE, AND WHY WIDETT”—it seemed something had been left out. Namely, “How?” And “What?”—if not “WTF?”
As it turns out, in February 2007, then-Mayor Tom Menino single-handedly approved an extension of the New Boston Food Market’s 121A status for another two decades, through 2027. (Under 121A designation, New Boston enjoys favorable economic relief, and currently all of the Widett wholesalers combined pitch in less than $1 million a year in property taxes for their prime real estate, for better or worse.) In the same transaction, Menino green-lit the BRA to take control over a one-acre parcel within Widett Circle for the stated purpose of spurring economic development there. For the swath, which resembles the blade of a butcher knife set to sever an I-93 artery, the BRA paid $1.
Under terms of the 2007 agreement, New Boston proprietors “shall have no responsibility or further liability” for the acre given to the BRA, which agreed to pay 25 percent of all “gross proceeds” made from any licensing or leasing on its lot to the food market corporation. Furthermore, the city agreed “that it will not [lease the parcel] to any competing business of [New Boston],” or “authorize the development or use of the [parcel] in a manner that materially and negatively impacts the ability of [New Boston] to operate its business in the normal course.” Memoranda outlining the deal acknowledge that in order for the deal happen, a “fundamental change” was needed in the way that relevant Mass law is interpreted:
The changes … are necessary for two reasons. First, by … conveying such parcel to the [BRA] and making other site improvements … the underutilized [parcel] will be developed, thus fostering economic development in a much needed area. Second, the changes … constitute a “fundamental change” within the meaning of Chapter 121A, and thus allow the [BRA] to approve an extension of the Chapter 121A status for [New Boston] for twenty (20) additional years.
In short: The city promised not to sabotage the companies in Widett Circle, and by extension the more than 800 employees and innumerable others who rely on Greater Boston’s grub supply hub. Said commitment, however, goes on to note that “final approval” for any changes to the site rests with the BRA. This may all seem like a remote technicality. Nonetheless, Kressel’s chief concern is that the current arrangement enables the BRA to give its key slice of the Widett pie to whomever it pleases. In her words:
Since the Feds stopped funding redevelopment authorities in the 1970’s, the BRA has had to finagle money to float its bloated bureaucracy in ways that don’t require going begging to the City Council (which the BRA has by now entirely stripped of all its original oversight powers over Authority activities and funding) and risking the public scrutiny of the budget process. Menino perfected the art of feeding the BRA off the books, quietly giving it City-owned property to sell/lease for its own profit; we’ve lost billions of dollars that way over the decades.
Kressel goes on to lament how 121A tax breaks become magically “applicable to any project the BRA declares ‘blighted,’” even if they are attractive opportunities for developers, and gives examples of various kinds of city acquisitions like City Hall Plaza, the Winthrop Square parking garage, and the Prudential Center, the latter of which she calls “a luxury housing and commercial development that only recently started paying property taxes.” As for Winthrop Square, revelations pointed to by Kressel recently forced Mayor Walsh to seek approval from the City Council before putting the property in BRA hands. [Ed. note: On that issue, Kressel says the mayor hoped to move the land to “the public facilities department, which will be instructed by Walsh to launder it, illegally, into BRA hands.”)
In the case of Boston buying a corner of Widett Circle in 2007, the agreement states that “by adopting the … plan, the [BRA] would work to eliminate urban blight, foster economic growth and retain jobs in the City of Boston.” The extent to which the agency has accomplished those goals is up for debate, but the motivation for the chess move seems clear: Menino hoped to keep the racks of ribs and crates of seafood fresh from the Atlantic overflowing in the heart of Boston forever, or at least until 2027. And he was willing to allow the Hub to take a serious hit on all that land as a result.
Image of “Midtown” via Boston 2024
In a change of events, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has openly called for increased revenue from this remote pocket, and has expressed his hope to bring development there with or without the Summer Games. Last week Walsh told the Globe that “once redeveloped, Widett Circle could generate more than $100 million in taxes annually,” while Boston 2024 boosters say the area is currently so worthless that it may be warranted to shower luxury developers, Olympic or otherwise, with corporate welfare. Added the paper of record: “Even if the proposed tax breaks are enacted, the large number of new buildings would increase the tax base so much, organizers said, the city could expect to reap $7 million in annual taxes from the site by 2030, and $27 million in annual taxes by the time the development is projected to be done in 2040.”
In the same article, Boston Finance Commission Executive Director Matthew Cahill, who like Kressel pays extremely close attention to these labyrinthine land grabs, pointed out that “development is booming in Boston and … a tax incentive is unnecessary to spur construction on a large, attractive swath of land close to downtown.” He’s right, and if the honchos looking to put buildings there really believed in a free market, they’d make their best offer to area proprietors. Instead, there have been games, and secrecy, and speculation about eminent domain, by which municipal authorities can commandeer property for any number of subjective reasons. In any case, considering the city’s ownership within Widett Circle, said public dialogue may be putting the horse before the dressage stadium.
Given its position, the BRA can simply pull New Boston’s 121A status, or at least bury the prospect of doing lucrative business there by threatening to do so. It would be ironic, since the BRA bought itself into Widett purportedly to save the food market; but considering that the Walsh-backed Boston 2024 just released updated plans with “Midtown” glowing where there the food market now stands, it’s safe to say that the protection plan has been abandoned. Writes Kressel:
It is now an industrial area with close to 1,000 workers earning good pay. Aren’t we always longing for those old-timey industrial jobs to come back? Well, this is where they are—and they’re being belittled and displaced, yet again, to be replaced with doormen and valets for absentee condo investors, store clerks and coffee baristas, maybe some suburban commuter office jobs and cleaning workers.
There is no better time than now to TERMINATE THE BRA and restore a real planning department for the City of Boston. Now, before this insatiable shark uses the Olympics to break the city for its legacy to itself: perpetual, unaccountable, and very fat funding, with not a dime to be used for a single service to the taxpayers of Boston.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly labeled City Hall Plaza and the Winthrop Square parking garage as 121A projects.