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How sports drove the debate over development in the Boston area this decade

Sports ended up providing a unique way in to analyzing how to improve the region—especially when it came to whether or not to host the Olympics

Supporters of hosting the Games signed a banner in March 2015. Four months later, the Boston area’s bid was dead.
| Boston Globe via Getty Images

It was Tuesday, July 28, 2015, and Chris Dempsey was eating a hamburger at the old Bus Stop Pub on Western Avenue in lower Allston when John Fish called his cell.

Dempsey, a former Bain & Company consultant who served as an assistant transportation secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick, had been a leading opponent of the effort to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to the Boston area. That nearly three-year-long effort had collapsed the day before. The bartender at the Bus Stop, in fact, recognized Dempsey and wouldn’t let him pay for his meal out of gratitude for the successful opposition.

Fish—chairman and chief executive of Suffolk Construction, a near-omnipresence in Boston-area real estate, and the most powerful person in Boston per Boston Magazine, outranking even the mayor and the governor—had been perhaps the games’ biggest booster.

Dempsey lifting the cell to his ear had all the trappings, then, of a town common before the fireworks.

Far from exploding, Fish instead congratulated Dempsey on his victory—“graciously,” as Dempsey would recall. “Democracy worked,” the construction magnate told him.

The battle that that call ended, over bringing the 2024 Summer Games to the region, was the most pronounced example this decade of how public officials, private businesspeople, and residents thought about the growth and the development of Greater Boston in relation to sports.

There were other examples—namely real estate developments related to Fenway Park and TD Garden, never mind the numerous victory parades of the past 10 years—but none quite exemplified the impact sports had on the region as did the Olympian fight.

“America’s bid” vs. #10PeopleOnTwitter

Aerial rendering of a stadium in a city.
Plans for the 2024 Games called for a new stadium in Boston’s Widett Circle.
Boston 2024

The grassroots cultivated both the support for and the opposition to bringing the Summer Olympics to the region.

On the pro side, two young professionals named Eric Reddy and Corey Dinopoulos hatched the idea independently, and then met for the first time to discuss it at the Omni Parker Hotel in downtown Boston in fall 2012. Officials at Boston City Hall had put them in touch, and they soon busied themselves lobbying for public and private support.

On the con side, Dempsey and Liam Kerr decided to oppose the bid about a year later, after their favored candidate, City Councilor John Connolly, lost the 2013 mayoral race. The pair had worked toward Connolly’s election, and wanted to stay involved in public policy. The push for the games struck them as short-sighted, an immense undertaking for an event that might benefit certain interests, but only briefly. The group No Boston Olympics grew from Dempsey and Kerr’s partnership.

From the start, development and growth framed the debate. Supporters—which came to include Fish (who declined to comment for this story) as well as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who famously rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games—saw the 2024 contest as a way to focus the region’s priorities for its built environment.

For instance, it was widely understood that Boston would need to produce thousands more housing units for Olympians and others related to the games. That housing would then be available post-Olympics for the general population—no small thing given that, like now, the region suffered at mid-decade from low housing supply amid high demand.

It was understood, too, that the region’s mass transit system would need to handle many more riders during the Olympics than it typically handled, and that might mean additional buses and trains.

There would also be the need for immense athletics facilities, including an aquatics center, a velodrome for cycling, and a new stadium. Kraft, for one, told the Globe in November 2013 he was looking to build a stadium somewhere in the region for his professional soccer team, the New England Revolution. The Olympic stadium might give way to that. “We would try to help tailor something that could serve the needs of the Olympics and also our soccer team,” Kraft told the newspaper.

It was musings such as that that spurred No Boston Olympics.

“The single, best case that the pro side had in terms of winning over public support for this idea was that this was going to be an event that was going to force us to do a bunch of improvements to our city and our region that wouldn’t otherwise happen,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey—now the executive director of advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts—and other opponents instead saw the games as a likely distraction from getting things done beyond what would be needed for a two-week event nearly a decade in the future, including more housing or improvements to mass transit. The games might also prove a drain on the public coffers at a time when the region needed billions just for its mass transit.

Indeed, some observers grew skeptical as the estimated price tag—into the tens of billions—for hosting became clearer, never mind the possible disruptions to city life from construction. (Romney compared the impact to that of “20 Super Bowls all at once.”)

“I was put off by the sense that ‘the only way we’re going to get a better transportation system is if we get the Olympics,’” said Jim Aloisi, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary and ex-board member of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Such skepticism, often in the form of public debates or dueling op-eds as well as demonstrations, eventually overtook the more marquee support for the games (supporters came to include former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, former Gov. Deval Patrick, Bain co-Chairman Steve Pagliuca, and Olympic gold medalist—and Needham native—Aly Raisman).

People traipsing about massive piles of snow, and there’s a subway sign sticking out in the middle of the piles. Boston Globe via Getty Images

And, like czarist Russia confronting Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the weather proved a fortuitous ally for the opposition: Nearly 10 feet of snow fell on the Boston region during the winter of 2015, often immobilizing mass transit and rendering roads and sidewalks impassable—and coming just as Olympic officials neared their decision about which U.S. city might host the 2024 Games.

If ever there was a season when Bostonians and their neighbors did not want to hear about fabulously pricey summertime accoutrements and far-off fixes, it was then. Public officials once in favor of hosting peeled away during the winter and the spring of that year—even after the U.S. Olympic Committee in January officially selected the region as the U.S. bid.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for instance, said at the January press conference announcing the USOC’s decision that “Boston was destined to be America’s bid,” and later dismissed opponents as “about 10 people on Twitter” (which caused #10PeopleOnTwitter to start trending). But, by July, Walsh was signaling that Boston was no longer interested in guaranteeing its share of the cost, and the USOC soon withdrew the bid.

A parade of other changes

Of course, other sports-related debates and milestones besides the Olympics bid impacted the region’s built environment during the decade. Major changes to Fenway Park and TD Garden, which together host three of the region’s four major professional sports teams, were among those.

The changes to the Red Sox’s Fenway home involved new sections and new seating arrangements as well as new signage (goodbye, Budweiser—hello, Samuel Adams). The park’s ownership also, with city permission, renamed the stretch of street next to the ballpark, which turns into a pedestrian plaza on game days. Jersey Street had been named for longtime Sox owner Tom Yawkey, but his racist past caught up with him amid a larger late-decade debate over Confederate monuments. (The name of the Yawkey Way commuter-rail stop was also changed, to Lansdowne Station.)

The Sox’s owners also started work this decade on a 91,500-square-foot, four-level venue at the intersection of Lansdowne and Ipswich streets, next to the ballpark, that will open early in the next decade. Dubbed the MGM Music Hall at Fenway, it’s due to hold 5,400 spectators and fill a need in Boston for mid-sized performance venues.

The changes to TD Garden, home of the Bruins and the Celtics, were even more consequential. They involved the biggest renovation of the arena since it opened in 1995—one that added 50,000 square feet—as well as a mixed-use development on and around it called Hub on Causeway. That project includes, among other features, a 38-story apartment building and a 60,000-square-foot supermarket.

As for the home of the Patriots, that NFL stadium is located a little bit beyond the Boston-area’s orbit, in the town of Foxborough. But the popularity of the oft-beringed team led the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to add regular commuter-rail service from downtown Boston to Gillette Stadium on game days.

Men on a truck making their way through a cheering crowd in a downtown city.
The 1.5 million people who turned out for the Patriots’ 2019 victory parade may have constituted the largest single crowd in Boston history.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

And, speaking of the Patriots, the 2019 Super Bowl parade for the team—which drew an estimated 1.5 million to downtown Boston in February—sparked debate over the cost of, and the congestion caused by such celebrations. Some called for holding them only on weekends, when regular car, bus, and train traffic would not be as heavy—though it’s unclear if this will become the norm.

Though maybe it should. It wasn’t just parades for the Pats, after all. Downtown ended up hosting seven victory parades total this decade for the Sox, the Bruins, the Celtics, and the Pats combined.

Finally, the April 2013 terrorist attack at the end of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square changed not necessarily the built environment of the region—though it did lead to a moving memorial in Back Bay to the attack’s victims and a new Seaport park honoring its youngest victim—but the tenor of its most famous sporting event. The race has never been the same since, with added security a notable change.

Boston 3.0

It’s difficult, though, not to return to the mid-decade debate over the Olympics when discussing how sports influenced the Boston region in the 2010s. Jim Aloisi, now a consultant, wrote an op-ed for CommonWealth magazine in the wake of the bid’s demise. He called the aftermath a chance to shape “Boston 3.0—a vision for a 21st-century city.”

“Forests are built one tree at a time; so, too, urban quality of life depends upon the successful implementation of a number of improvements neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block,” he wrote.

A subway train derailed under a bridge.
The June 2019 derailment of a Red Line train highlighted the challenges confronting the region’s transportation infrastructure.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Incremental yet inexorable change has been the name of the game in the region since the games debate. That debate did not spur slam-dunk solutions—the T still struggles, traffic is still terrible, and there’s still not enough housing—but it focused so many different players and interests on the major challenges confronting the region.

It’s hard not to see the debate as a signpost on the way to solutions such as the 2018 pledge by a coalition of 15 mayors, including Boston’s Walsh, to facilitate the construction of 185,000 new housing units by 2030, or the ongoing efforts to improve the T.

“I’m happy that the conversation happened, regardless of the outcome,” said Corey Dinopoulos, one of the original backers of the games.

He has since soured on the idea—in large part because Olympics officials eventually seemed prepared to saddle Boston with much of the cost and then moved on quickly after Walsh balked. Dinopoulos also said the event would’ve gotten in the way of developments that have since materialized, including much of the Seaport District and Harvard’s Allston footprint, as financing and other resources, as well as public attention, focused on preparing for the games. (He and Chris Dempsey are also friends now.)

Still, by forcing officials and residents to debate how the region would handle those “20 Super Bowls all at once,” the bid did draw attention to challenges that the region faced—and still faces, like the T. “We’re going to be talking about MBTA improvements until I’m 90, I’m quite sure,” the 35-year-old Dinopoulos said.

As for those solutions to the challenges, the original proponents and opponents of the Olympics bid have converged in some areas, including ones that planning for the games might have delayed if not derailed.

For instance, Dempsey and John Fish both independently told Boston Magazine this fall that they’d like to see some form of congestion pricing as a way to solve Boston’s traffic congestion—an idea barely broached in the area until this year.

“I think as a region, we ended up in the right place,” Dempsey said.

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