Elected officials and area residents are keeping a wary eye on plans for the former Bayside Expo Center property on Columbia Point as a proposal for a New England Revolution soccer stadium on the prime waterfront land is stoking concerns over the lack of a transparent public process.
State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, state representatives Nick Collins and Dan Hunt, and City Councillor Frank Baker late last month sent a letter to the University of Massachusetts Building Authority (UMBA) that highlighted their “serious concerns with recent proposed developments in and around Columbia Point.”
The key matter in question is the prospect of a soccer stadium being built on a portion of the 20-odd-acres where the Bayside Exposition and Conference Center once stood. That structure is being turned to rubble with each passing day as UMass is demolishing the building. Patriots and Revolution owner Robert Kraft has been in talks with UMass Boston to construct a 20,000-seat, $250 million home for his Major League Soccer franchise.
Discussions surrounding development on the Point have passed through several rounds of public input, including a three-year process that culminated in the creation of the 2011 Columbia Point Master Plan.
That report envisioned Bayside as “a mixed-use development that has new retail, residential, and office uses, and an expanded hotel.” Its authors highlighted potential open space use and noted the possibility for mid-size development parcels between the current Corcoran-Jennison-owned office center and the Harborwalk.
After UMass Boston purchased the Bayside site following a foreclosure in 2010, a series of public meetings and forums called “the Bayside Charetting Process” was launched.
It was with this history in mind that the legislators sent their letter noting that as stadium discussions stand, proposals “do not comply with the ‘Guiding Principles’ set forth by UMB’s Charrette process, nor do they comply with the Columbia Point Master Plan.”
They added, “We are asking you to further analyze any proposed development and/or negotiations regarding the Bayside Center Location. We believe there are serious implications for our community and the future of the University of Massachusetts system.”
Sen. Dorcena Forry followed up on Wednesday, issuing a statement lamenting the lack of public process as stadium plans have been advanced.
“I am disappointed with the University of Massachusetts and the City of Boston’s behind-closed-door discussion for a large-scale development that would have serious impact on residents and neighbors,” she wrote. “Dorchester residents deserve a transparent process. This is not good business and not good government.”
She added, “Columbia Point is an important area in my district, with the potential for strong economic and residential growth. As [the community’s] state senator, I am prepared to work with my colleagues to take legislative action to protect the best interests of the public and my constituents. Acting in secret and without bringing members of the community and their elected representatives to the table until backroom deals come to light through stories in the media is wholly unacceptable.”
In noting that “the UMass Building Authority’s enabling act exempts the University from local zoning and municipal approvals; from open bidding laws; as well as exemption from paying taxes on their land,” the senator said, “This is against the public’s interests. I am a true believer in public and private partnerships, but I am also a strong advocate for transparent government and process.”
In his response to the original letter delivered on Tuesday, UMBA Chairman Victor Woolridge highlighted the opportunity to alleviate financial strains from reduced public education funding for UMass Boston.
“As of this writing, there is no firm proposal for development at the Bayside site,” he wrote. But the potential stadium, he said, “could, if realized, provide revenues for the University unmatched by other potential uses for the site while also facilitating infrastructure improvements to the surrounding area that may only be possible through such a partnership.”
For all that, UMass’s negotiations with the Boston Teacher’s Union over its property on the Bayside site is a potential wrench in the works. The Boston Globe reported on Wednesday that the university has offered the union, which represents some 9,000 teachers and retirees, a land swap on UMass property for its 2.7-acre parcel that sits in a critical location for the stadium plan.
The union asked for around $17.5 million for any move, the Globe reported, noting that with additional costs the price might rise too high for Kraft’s comfort. Without the union parcel, UMass would not have control over a swath of land large enough to lease for the stadium, which would require about 10 acres of space.
The delegation letter also highlights a rift between elected leaders regarding the overall potential of Columbia Point development. The signers of the letter to the UMBA letter, along with Congressman Stephen Lynch, who called a stadium plan “a bad idea” when the proposal was made public in June, have to varying degrees opposed the stadium idea while Mayor Martin Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker have been bullish about the stadium idea.
With the Bayside property located at a central transit point – near the JFK/UMass station and adjacent to congested Kosciuszko Circle, the entrance to Interstate 93, and the frequently-flooded William T. Morrissey Boulevard, which is on the early end of an extended redesign – infrastructure and neighborhood pressures top the list of the politicians’ concerns.
Additionally, given Wooldridge’s acknowledgment that the university “has been engaged in private and confidential real estate discussions to determine if such a project would be a viable option” rather than publicly seeking other proposals, some civic activists are hardening their resolve to get more information about what’s going on. They feel shut out of a discussion that has the potential to drag their communities to a standstill or else reinvigorate the neighborhoods.
At a Columbia-Savin Hill Civic association meeting this week, Don Walsh, who worked on the Columbia Point Master Plan, said, “We can’t just sit back and be passive about it and say, ‘Don’t hurt us too bad.’ ”
A UMBA spokeswoman told the Reporter this week that the university has heard of potential interest from other developers but it does not have any alternate proposals before them.
On the mayoral front, Walsh spokeswoman Laura Oggeri said last June that Walsh “has always been interested in exploring the possibility of a stadium in Boston and he is open to having a conversation about it. It’s important that any discussion about a stadium includes how it can be used as a catalyst for bringing much-needed improvements to any surrounding neighborhoods.”
Oggeri said Wednesday that the Mayor’s office is not party to any negotiations regarding the site.
The Krafts have reportedly been eyeing locations around Boston as potential stadium sites for years, but the Bayside site offers the city the opportunity to push for state-funded infrastructural improvements around the rotary as part of the project.
These discussions are not the peninsula’s first go-around time at the center of a controversial sporting proposal. The ill-fated 2024 Summer Olympic Games pitch would have converted the Bayside property— and adjacent land not controlled by UMass— into an Olympic Athlete’s Village.
UMass acquired the Bayside site in 2010 after its previous owners, Corcoran Jennison Companies, lost it to foreclosure. In the aftermatyh, land use and redevelopment have stalled a number of projects on the Point as the university remained in a standoff with its neighbors — principally Corcoran Jennison.
UMass has blocked a Corcoran plan to build new apartments on land it owns adjacent to Bayside, which were approved by the city planning agency in 2014 and have been left in limbo as the impasse continues.
UMass is continuing work on other projects. It briefed community members on Monday about plans for a $71 million parking garage along University Drive West. Phil Carver, associate director of community relations, told Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association members that a 1,400-car garage will rise eight levels next to the Monan Park baseball field that UMass and Boston College High School share. The facility will include three entrance and exits designed to handle peak commuter traffic, he said.
Adding to the hum over land deals on the Point is neighborhood talk about the future of the Santander Bank operations center at 2 Morrissey Blvd. The bank is a tenant at the property that runs along Mt. Vernon Street and abuts BC High and St. Christopher church.
Multiple sources have told the Reporter that the owner of the Santander site— a Nevada-based holding company— issued a Request for Proposals for the property last year. Interested parties were invited to submit bids for expanding the bank’s operations center and constructing a parking garage at the site.
Beacon Capitol Partners, a Boston-based real estate investment firm, submitted the winning bid, according to sources familiar with the deal.
A spokesperson for Santander Bank declined to talk about its plans for the Morrissey complex. A spokesperson for Beacon Capitol Partners also declined comment.