We ought to look at Widett Circle as a great opportunity, but also recognize its significance within the broader physical and economic context of the city planning effort Mayor Walsh will be advancing over the next two years. It’s reason to ignite an exciting conversation about what Boston could be — much as the Olympic bid did.
Widett Circle is one of those increasingly rare — but not unique — parcels encumbered by highways and railways, as well as by existing businesses that some believe may be better located elsewhere. Its redevelopment could create a significant change, the scale of which we have not seen since mid-century modern projects such as Government Center and the Pru, or even the gradual build-out of the Seaport District. Given the complexity of the site and the number of parcels involved, it would likely require some sort of public-private venture. In exchange for a master developer’s investment capital and know-how, the city will offer up tax incentives, land agglomeration, zoning changes, and an expedited approval process. How do we, as a city, evaluate such a deal?
The end of Boston’s Olympic dreams shouldn’t end planning for a new neighborhood south of downtown. With easy transit connections, the area once envisioned for an Olympic stadium still holds enormous potential. By thinking big, the Walsh administration can turn a little-used parcel into a key part of 21st-century Boston.
The success of such large planning opportunities can only be realized by having a larger, contextual conversation about what we want the city to be. At this stage, we have to wonder what other underutilized yet proximate sites are worthy of attention. Those could include Beacon Yards in Allston, Suffolk Downs, the East Boston waterfront, sites near Readville, as well as continued investment in and around Dudley Square and Fort Hill. Aren’t they suitable for such large-scale investments, and shouldn’t we at least give them some thought within the context of metropolitan Boston? So while the wholesale redevelopment of Widett Circle could be the best and brightest idea, we have no way to know in the absence of a wider discussion.
The good news is that we already have an array of excellent plans for individual neighborhoods from Roxbury to East Boston that people have spent long hours working with city planners to craft. The bad news is that there hasn’t been a larger framework within which to evaluate and coordinate them. Without a citywide plan, how do we protect and grow the economic sectors critical to job growth in the future and ensure that opportunities increase for all our citizens? How can we collectively build a process and a future with some predictability as to where we are going together?
And how do we measure success once we have arrived? We need a transparent process for community involvement in decision-making that is based in metrics and the principles of equitable city-building. Who knows, we may find glittering potential in sites elsewhere in the city — maybe deep within our own neighborhoods — that helps to build a better Boston.
Martin Zogran is a principal at Sasaki Associates, based in Watertown.