Planning Board Approves ‘Destination District’ Plan for Lower Broadway

The Planning Board voted unanimously last week after long discussion to approve the concept for a ‘destination entertainment district’ for the eastern side of Lower Broadway as part of the Urban Renewal Plan (URP).

It is the third amendment to the URP, which was first approved in 2015, and then customized to accommodate Encore Boston Harbor when it surprised everyone by winning a license on Lower Broadway some years ago. The amendment now is a major plan change, and focuses on the eastern side of Broadway in an effort to create a regional destination district – potentially with the ability to utilize Eminent Domain takings for four key parcels.

The plan also seeks to discontinue the part of Bow Street that veers off of Broadway at the casino.

“This plan is really to focus more attention on the eastern side of Broadway,” said Jamie Fay of Ft. Point Associates. “The existing plan included East and West, but really focused more on the west side. The goal is to try to latch onto the existing Encore Boston Harbor momentum and see if some excited developments can be spread on the east side, taking advantage of the proximity.”

Fay said they hope to clear out several existing properties and create higher uses to complement Encore and make the area into a regional destination entertainment district with waterfront access and more open space. Right now, the eastern side is mostly temporary surface parking lots for Encore, industrial uses and a few residential homes that have persevered.

“The goal is to push the district down to the Mystic River waterfront and upgrade public access and open space as part of the plan,” Fay said. “We would create a higher-level of uses than what is now vacant land, industrial properties and scrap yards and try to promote some higher-end activity to create jobs and more tax revenues and really make Lower Broadway into a regional destination…Maybe people will come and stay longer. You could have three or four things to do in Everett on a Saturday afternoon or evening instead of just one thing to do. So, it would become more of a destination and would produce fewer in and out trips to Everett.”

The proposed Lower Broadway Destination District would include such possibilities as destination entertainment, arts complexes, a marina, hospitality/hotel, water transportation, public water access, sports venues and other such entertainment concepts.

The idea isn’t new, and was hinted at by Encore years ago when they requested the temporary parking lots on Broadway. The plan was also famously announced in concept by Wynn CEO Matt Maddox even prior to the completion of the Encore casino. However, up until now, the destination concept had only been a hint, but the URP plan has made it more of a reality – something that was in question following COVID-19.

A key part of the plan is focusing on four parcels that are currently privately owned and would be critical to putting together large lots for large developments. Those lots include the massive old Mystic Power Station lot, which runs from about Bow Street to the Mystic River waterfront. That is the key lot and would provide potential waterfront access to allow for boating uses, and some have even discussed the docking of cruise ships there to utilize the casino. The lot currently houses unused electric generating equipment, generators that have been inactive for some time. At the moment, all of the electricity generation is done further to the east at two other generators that are newer.

The other lots include 23 Mystic St., 39-43 Mystic St., and 36 Mystic St., and together those four lots would be potentially subject to Eminent Domain takings under the new URP, which still has to be approved by the City Council. However, Fay said it is extremely unlikely that any of the properties would be taken that way. The idea, he said, is to have it as a tool for leverage and to promote private developers to buy the parcels outright.

He said they are the last remaining parcels in two major blocks in an area that, going forward, will be ripe for re-development.

“The goal is to try to spur some re-development,” Fay said, when Board members balked at the idea of taking land. “The goal is not to acquire the parcels. The goal is to at least have that as a tool in the toolbox if and when you might need to use it. However, the goal is to try to find a developer that can come in and develop it appropriately so the City wouldn’t have to acquire the property or come up with the money. In the worst case, which is not what we’re expecting, if for some reason the City felt it had to acquire the property, it would probably do so in concert with a re-development process which would have the City acquire the property and quickly turn it over to a private developer through another disposition process.”

Another key element is eliminating the Bow Street cut-through on Lower Broadway in order to make squared off lots and to have development lots with frontage on Broadway.

Another goal is to have dedicated bus and bike lanes on either side of Broadway, and an aspirational goal is to create a commuter rail stop near Encore Boston Harbor, Transportation Director Jay Monty said.

Member Leo Pizzano said it was a lot to digest in one night, with some major, generational changes. He, at first, offered to put it off until the next meeting, and also had concerns about the City taking property that would languish in City ownership and generate no tax revenue.

“The last time we did this, we had the Building Inspector and Planning Director that sat down and explained it all to us and that was just a minor change,” he said. “To accept a plan that still has 14 years to go, that’s really a lot for one night…Now you want to get rid of Bow Street, which is what everyone uses to get past Broadway when it’s jammed up. I have thoughts on that and I’m sure others have thoughts on that.”

He said taking the property would be a real gamble, and could result in major losses of taxpayer money.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say the taxpayers would be out any money,” said Fay. “The properties generate taxes now, but it is likely to deteriorate so there would be less money in the future. The plan envisions a private re-development of that (Mystic Station) parcel, which would increase its value and increase tax revenues to the City. There’s no dip in tax revenue here.”

Said Member Jim Tarr, “It would be more of an investment than a gamble in my opinion if it makes more money as a better development down the line…I have a hard time seeing that property in a situation where it sits for years and years. This is prime real estate. This is some of the most sought-after property in the Commonwealth from a real estate point of view.”

Added Chair Fred Cafasso, “It is…However, you have to remember when a developer comes in, they create a lot of incentives for them to come in, whether that is tax deferrals for five years or 10 years. We don’t know.”

However, all of that was beyond the scope of the Board at last week’s meeting. The Board simply had to vote on whether or not the concept presented was consistent with the goals of the Urban Renewal Plan – which despite some hesitancy on other items, they felt it was.

“I agree with the whole plan as it’s put forth, taking these olde buildings down there and re-developing them,” said Pizzano. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. When they lost Steve Wynn – I think he would have had that whole area developed and done already, so I’m for the plan and that’s the question. I just don’t want someone coming back in five years and saying the Planning Board really screwed up in not clarifying everything.”

The major amendment to the URP was approved by a vote of 5-0.

The Lower Broadway amendment is to be before the City Council in a special meeting today, June 23.

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