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Secret soccer stadium plans rile electeds

Local officials say they, abutters left out of Columbia Point talks

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration and the University of Massachusetts appear to have secretively negotiated with the New England Revolution’s owner, Bob Kraft, to plan a soccer stadium for Columbia Point in Dorchester, says Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. The stadium plan revelation sparked outcry from the elected officials representing the affected communities, who said they and abutters were largely left out of the decisions.

In a fiercely-worded statement, Sen. Forry blasted the process as secretive and exclusive, and one that denied local stakeholders a say in what happens in their neighborhood. While she and several local officials were aware the stadium idea was being floated, many only learned through a recent newspaper story how far plans had advanced.

“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,” Forry wrote.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George was part of the Columbia Point Task Force, which, years ago, engaged the community in a four-year process of preparing plans for the site. The final vision was for a vibrant community. A stadium matches none of the things people wanted, she said.

“[The plans] did not include a soccer stadium. It was housing, mixed-use commercial-residential, walking ways, bikeways, eyesight lines to the harbor,” Essaibi-George said in a Banner phone interview.

Unlike the vibrant community envisioned, a stadium would only be active intermittently, and when in use, would force high traffic on the area, she said.

“Backroom deals”

New England Revolution owner Kraft seeks to build a soccer stadium on the Dorchester site, which includes the former Bayside Exposition center and a slice of land currently home to the Boston Teachers Union’s headquarters.

BTU has been open to relocating, if given sufficient compensation, including a new headquarters. A Boston Globe article last week stated that the Walsh administration had shown several sites to the BTU, with one meeting approval, and that the BTU currently is negotiating over monetary compensation. Many elected officials from the community were taken by surprise that the plans had progressed this far.

“State agencies acting with impunity, handpicking a singular entity to develop a public site, is wrong,” Forry said.

The former exposition center, which represents the majority of the land Kraft seeks, is state-held: It is owned by University of Massachusetts. UMass is exempt from the state’s open bidding law, local zoning and municipal approvals and tax payments for their land, Forry notes. As such, plans have been allowed to proceed with seemingly only one bidder — Kraft — considered for the site.

Essaibi-George cautioned against assuming that a soccer stadium is the only viable option for the property simply because it is the only one that has been discussed due to the lack of open bidding process.

“Are we simply responding to the only offer on the table, because that property hasn’t been promoted? There’s no RFP [request for proposals] put out, no dialogue around what others may see for that space,” she said. “Just because Robert Kraft has reached out, that doesn’t mean a soccer stadium is the best use for that space.”

South Boston Rep. Nick Collins issued a statement saying that the choice of development for the property will powerfully impact Dorchester and should be subject to open, transparent conversation.

“A thorough community review involving all stakeholders is necessary to ensure that this valuable public asset is developed responsibly to maximize economic and social benefits,” Collins said. “We have one shot to get this right and we need to have an open, public process that considers what’s best for UMass, the neighbors and area businesses and the city of Boston. I stand with my fellow elected leaders in calling for transparency and thoughtful planning as we consider next steps.”

Despite the outcry from electeds, UMass spokesperson Jeff Cournoyer said in a statement reported by WGBH that the university had made efforts to keep them aware, and that the institution’s plans are not solid enough to show to legislators.

“The University of Massachusetts has been transparent regarding the status of a prospective development of the Bayside parcel,” Cournoyer said, “including in meetings and discussions with elected officials representing the Boston campus and its surrounding neighborhoods both individually and collectively as recently as Tuesday, Jan. 3.”

The Mayor’s Office states that while Walsh is interested in the stadium idea, he has not been a part of the negotiations. According to his office, Walsh has discussed headquarter moves with the BTU at various time during the past years, but only informally and not in connection to the stadium plan specifically.

“Mayor Walsh has always been interested in exploring the possibility of a stadium in Boston and he is open to having a conversation about it,” states a representative from the Mayor’s office. “Mayor Walsh has spoken with the BTU about potential moves over the past several years as they continue to explore their options, however these informal conversations are not specific to any projects.”

Following protests from several elected officials, Governor Baker met with Forry, Collins and Dorchester Rep. Dan Hunt for a discussion, during which officials said they reiterated the need for greater community involvement in the Columbia Point development planning.