The net zero imperative for Suffolk Downs

Massive East Boston development must set green example 

THE CITY OF BOSTON is considering whether to approve 10.5 million square feet of new housing and commercial building at the former Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston.  The project would be among the largest single developments in the city’s history. The financial backer is Texas oil-money billionaire William Bruce Harrison.

Led by East Boston residents together with Sierra Club Massachusetts, 30 public health, environmental, and neighborhood-based organizations are urging commitment to net zero new construction before this project can be considered for approval.

Such project result in no net additional carbon emissions and are powered almost entirely by off-site or on-site renewable energy sources. Unfortunately and unaccountably, the proposal does not meet the city’s own goals for net zero new construction as part of an overall strategy to address the climate crisis.

In our letter to city leaders and the developer, we affirmed that the project must be 100 percent union labor, guarantee participation of women and minority owned businesses, substantially increase affordable housing – at a floor of 20 percent with a realistic measure of neighborhood affordability – and commit to far more investment in public transit to reduce traffic congestion. These are all interconnected issues.

Serious questions regarding the Suffolk Downs development have also been raised regarding insufficient affordable housing and inadequate accommodation for our non-English speaking East Boston neighbors during project review thus far.

In a time of increasingly severe and disparate impacts from climate change — including public health impacts on our friends and neighbors in East Boston — the Suffolk Downs project must achieve net zero carbon from day one for all buildings.

Gov. Baker has established net zero by 2050 as a core goal to address climate change state-wide.

Mayor Walsh has acknowledged that addressing climate change is a critical priority and that carbon neutral new buildings are an essential element of this effort. Thus the city’s failure to require net zero now at Suffolk Downs is particularly difficult to understand.

As a new construction project to be phased in over many years, in an environmental justice community on a low-lying coastal site coastal wetlands and tidal marsh for many thousands of years (until filled under the regime of James Michael Curley), Suffolk Downs is the perfect opportunity for these stated commitments to be put into practice.

The Suffolk Downs developer has consistently said that “the numbers do not work” to achieve net zero — but has never sharing any real data to back-up their assertion. The city has yet to require that these claims of infeasibility be supported with actual facts and figures.

Given that Suffolk Downs is starting from scratch on a large parcel, it presents a unique opportunity for solar and geothermal energy. The technology exists for these options to be maximized.

As the bordering Belle Isle Marsh is at risk of being entirely submerged by sea level rise, carbon can be sequestered by protecting the marsh, making up for carbon emitted by the construction and operation of buildings.

Rather than comprehensive, enforceable commitments to adopt and phase in new technologies, the proponent relies on unspecified post-approval steps, promising that the project will provide unquantified future climate mitigation measures to improve building energy use.

Accepting for a moment the developer’s unproved assertions, practical, innovative steps for the city exist: require a carbon budget for full project build out, for example, showing with credible data how the project will achieve net zero carbon by 2050, then levy an annual excess carbon fee for all years over net zero, to be reinvested into sustainability and resiliency programs.

City approval of Suffolk Downs requires a finding of net public benefit. Failure to achieve net zero is, by definition, a net adverse impact. Without enforceable commitment to net zero carbon buildings from day one, the Suffolk Downs project cannot support the necessary finding of net public benefit.

Harm to residents from climate change – and from housing displacement and increased traffic congestion – is not offset by acknowledged project benefits and the windfall financial returns to investors.

If achieving net zero now requires that private investors have reduced profit, that is a necessary offset, given the urgency of the climate crisis and the requirement the project provide net public benefits.

A net zero project enables residents to live comfortably with lower energy costs and healthier air. Why would we not take advantage of these technologies to benefit the health and economic needs of East Boston residents?

Why should the financial goals of a Texas oil billionaire take precedence over the well-being of East Boston residents and the imperative to address global climate change now?

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Alex DeFronzo is an East Boston resident and member of the Suffolk Downs Impact Advisory Committee. Kannan Thiruvengadam is an East Boston resident and director of Eastie Farm, an urban farm focused on community resiliency.