Commercial Interests

Speculation Abounds On Suffolk Downs

New Owners Rumored To Soon Be Announced

Scott Van Voorhis

Scott Van Voorhis

After years of barely hanging on, some of New England’s oldest and largest racetracks are hurtling towards a date with development destiny.

New owners will soon be taking over Suffolk Downs, with plans to redevelop a 161-acre racetrack that represents one of the last development frontiers in Greater Boston’s urban core.

New York horse racing enthusiast Richard Fields and concessions king Joe O’Donnell, Suffolk’s two leading stakeholders, are in serious talks with a buyer, with a deal expected to be announced soon, possibly in the next few weeks, sources close to the racetrack say.

Just 45 minutes north up I-93, a local entrepreneur is pushing plans to transform the old Rockingham Park into a mixed-use project featuring a village-style development with apartments, shops and restaurants all sporting red roofs and stucco in a nod to the architecture of Tuscany.

Meanwhile, up in Maine, the owners of Scarborough Downs are hoping to find a real estate investor to take the racetrack and hundreds of acres off their hands.

The reasons for the racetrack sales are no mystery. The popularity of horse racing, once one of the nation’s major pastimes with dedicated beat writers on sports pages across the country, is in terminal decline after years of dwindling interest.

But bold new chapters loom for all these former racetracks. The redevelopment of Suffolk Downs could very well have a major impact on the future of Boston, adding a new neighborhood to the mix. And the shuttering of Suffolk, Rockingham and Scarborough is also likely to have far-reaching implications for New England’s booming casino industry as well, removing from the table three long-standing gambling halls.

Sprawling Suffolk, which straddles East Boston and Revere, has seen a number of potential buyers kick the tires over the last several months, with interest from both local developers and national players. But the discussions are now entering the final stages with one buyer, though more is known right now about who Suffolk’s prospective owner is not than who it actually is.

High-end mall builder Steve Karp, best known for the CambridgeSide Galleria and redeveloping the Anthony’s Pier 4 site in the South Boston Seaport, was once considered a top candidate, having been listed at one point as a minority investor.

But Karp’s not the buyer in this deal and neither is Vornado, the aggressive New York-based real estate investment firm that has had a 20 percent stake in the property. Vornado once had big plans for the Boston area but may have gotten second thoughts after being run off the Filenes redevelopment plan a few years back after unwisely sparking a feud with the city’s longest-reigning mayor, the late, great Thomas M. Menino.

While Suffolk’s buyer may not yet be clear, the potential the site holds certainly is. At 161 acres, the development potential of Suffolk in some ways rivals that of the Seaport a few years back.

It’s a large amount of land in an old and relatively dense city. In fact, you could squeeze the multibillion-dollar Seaport Square and Fan Pier projects onto Suffolk’s acreage and still have room for Fort Point’s 100 acres of tastefully redeveloped Victorian-era warehouses turned condominiums, restaurants and offices.

While there’s no detailed word yet on the plans of Suffolk’s buyer-to-be, in general there’s interest in transforming the site into a mixed-use development that would include housing as well as office and other commercial uses, according to sources close to the track.

An obvious model is Somerville’s Assembly Row mega project, home to the new $465 million Partners Healthcare building, several dozen shops and hundreds of residents.

Federal Realty hopes to eventually expand the new Somerville neighborhood to more than 5 million square feet of apartments, condos, offices, restaurants, stores and entertainment venues. That will mean thousands of residents.

So how much will Suffolk fetch? I’d wager well over $100 million. But how much the track and its land ultimately sell for depends largely on how much development the new owner can get approved.

That will mean working with Boston officials – who oversee the 120 acres on the East Boston side of the track – and Revere, which has zoning authority over the remaining 40 acres.

Suffolk management has told racetrack employees and horsemen who race at what’s left of the racetrack – it’s down to just a handful of race days a year – that they are probably safe for the next year or two. That undoubtedly reflects the 18 months to two years it typically takes to get large project through the review process at Boston City Hall.

Needless to say, Suffolk’s development potential is huge. But the impact of Suffolk’s sale – and for that matter the sale of Rockingham and Scarborough Downs – will extend well beyond the world of commercial development to New England’s steadily expanding casino sector.

Steve Wynn, who is building his $2 billion Wynn Boston Harbor casino just over the Boston city line in nearby Everett, probably won’t be shedding any tears over the redevelopment of Suffolk and Rockingham.

The shutdown and redevelopment of these tracks takes off the table hard-to-find and extremely valuable sites for future casinos. Racetracks have long been favored by casino developers, who often have less community opposition due to the history of gambling at these venues. While the prospect of a rival casino taking shape at Suffolk was likely a long shot, things can change over time and stranger things have happened.

Rockingham though was always a very real threat, with a number of proposals over the years in the New Hampshire Legislature to put thousands of slot machines at the racetrack, which just happens to be a 45-minute drive from Boston.

A Rockingham casino, in turn, could have siphoned $100 million or more a year in gambling revenue from Wynn, stealing a sizable share of the north of Boston market.
The same is not true for the current and former owners of Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park, who dreamed for decades of hitting it big by winning legislative approval for massive casino projects.

Casino dreams tend to die hard. But in the long run, the Boston area will be far better off with a Suffolk that is home to thousands of new homes and millions of square feet of new development than a glitzy casino, no matter how profitable it would have been for the owners.

Speculation Abounds On Suffolk Downs

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min