A Future for Suffolk Downs?

After devastating loss of casino license for Mohegan Sun, developers, community wonder if horse track could become $1B redevelopment site

Now that Mohegan Sun has lost its bid for a $1.1 billion casino resort at Suffolk Downs, the owners of the 79-year-old horse track say it’s got zero future for horse racing.

But even as many mourn the imminent death of a storied tradition at Suffolk – and the loss of some 300 jobs there and hundreds more off-site that support racing – many are already wondering whether Suffolk may have a bright future as the locus for Greater Boston’s next billion-dollar-plus redevelopment opportunity.

"It’s an ideal site. It's got all the characteristics of a piece of property that you'd want to scope out," development expert Robert Buckley of the Riemer & Braunstein LLP law firm said in an interview Thursday afternoon. With close to 100 acres in East Boston and nearly 50 more adjacent to it in Revere, Buckley said he can easily envision Suffolk Downs becoming something like the new Assembly Row site in Somerville or NorthPoint site in Cambridge, an old Ford Motor plant and railroad yard, respectively, that are filling up with new homes, shops, offices, and more.

"You’re going to have to master-plan it, and come out with, I think, a mixed-use project" at a redeveloped Suffolk Downs, Buckley said, with probably "a combination of residential, retail, and amenities or entertainment, and this is an ideal location for that."

Some of what makes it ideal – it’s got Route 1A on one side, the Revere Beach Parkway on another, and two stops on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Blue Line on the other – not just its namesake station, but the Beachmont Station in Revere, which puts direct rapid-transit access at two corners of what is roughly a big rectangle of Suffolk Downs real estate.

On top of that, it’s barely five minutes’ drive – and three T stops – from Logan International Airport, leading some to wonder whether Suffolk Downs could legitimately hope to become home to new technology, life sciences, and finance businesses that would welcome a chance to be so close to air access to Europe and the rest of the U.S.

Alternatively, there’s much buzz that Suffolk could become the in-town on-transit New England Revolution soccer stadium that their owners The Kraft Group have long been understood to want to find. Or if Boston really does land the 2024 Olympics, could Suffolk Downs become a major venue if that happens?

"The idea of a stadium or some major entertainment facility there, then filling in around it, makes a lot of sense," Buckley said.

But former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., a lifelong East Boston resident, said Thursday: "The last thing that development needs is another high-traffic-intensive, parking-intensive use."

Aloisi is a leader of a group of Eastie residents who at this site (hyperlink https://sites.google.com/site/eastboston2020/overarching-principles ) have called for a green and sustainable project that creates a promising and growing number of jobs, especially for East Boston residents, taking advantage of the huge existing investment in transit access, through a process that is transparent and engages the neighborhood.

"We need a development there that's respectful of transit-oriented development, that's respectful of real, permanent future-looking jobs creation," Aloisi said, "jobs that are innovation-driven jobs, that are training-driven jobs, that are jobs that are growing for people, where it's not stagnant and where there's no upward mobility."

Buckley said he’s confident Suffolk Downs will have a long future after the thoroughbreds and jockeys and grooms and other race-related jobs are gone. "You know, as one door closes, another opens," Buckley said. "It's going to take a lot of planning. It's going to take a lot of thinking outside the box for the cities involved and the surrounding communities. But I think there's a tremendous opportunity there if the right forces are brought to play -- and they will come in because it's too attractive a piece of property."

With videographer Scott Wholley 

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