Deal to buy Suffolk Downs could spur development there

The Boston Globe | By Tim Logan & Shirley Leung
March 4, 2017

A prominent local developer has agreed to buy Suffolk Downs in East Boston, a deal that could turn the down-on-its-luck horse track into a new neighborhood that transforms the northern corner of the city.

A group led by former Boston Redevelopment Authority chief Tom O’Brien has the 161-acre site under contract, according to people familiar with the situation, and a sale could close by summer. The agreement is preliminary and could fall through, the people said, but it’s the clearest sign yet of a new start for Suffolk after plans to build a casino there died in 2014.

Neither O’Brien nor Suffolk partners would comment on the agreement, and no sale price was available. But observers say the site, which sits between two Blue Line stops and crosses partially into Revere, has enormous development potential for housing, retail, and open space.

“You look at it and say, ‘Wow, that is an unbelievable opportunity,’ ” said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a real estate trade group. “You have enough critical mass to make something really great there.”

With business at the horse track dwindling for years, Suffolk principal owners Richard Fields and Joe O’Donnell saw a casino as their future. After multiple partnerships and public votes, the casino plan was finally shot down in 2014, when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission awarded a Boston-area license to Wynn Resorts in Everett. Since then, the track has hosted simulcasting and just a handful of races each summer, while the owners figured out their next step. Meanwhile, talk has picked up in recent days that the nearby Wonderland dog track, which is owned by largely the same group of investors, also has found a buyer.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Friday that redevelopment of Suffolk Downs has been a long time coming. He was hesitant to prescribe what should be built there but acknowledged he would support affordable housing on the site.

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