Port designation poses big hurdle for redevelopment of power plant land in Everett

With a possible New England Revolution soccer stadium in mind, House leaders last month adopted language in their economic development bill to exempt the Mystic site from DPA restrictions. The Kraft Group has long sought a standalone home for the Revs in Greater Boston, separate from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, and the Mystic site has been a rumored contender for several years.

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The Conservation Law Foundation went to war after the “soccer stadium amendment” came to light, lobbying against what the group called a last-minute, backroom deal that could undermine the local maritime economy; CLF also blasted language that would exempt the property from construction limits under the state’s Chapter 91 law governing tidelands. Time ran out on formal sessions before the House and Senate could reach an agreement on the broader economic development bill.

The fate of that bill — a $4 billion-plus potpourri of tax cuts and economic-related program funds — remains up in the air. As a result, so is this key piece of Everett’s riverfront renaissance. And the entire debate underscores pressing questions about our old industrial waterfronts, and how they should evolve.

At Mystic, a viable mixed-use project might be possible under Chapter 91 tidelands rules. But the DPA issue could be a deal breaker, potentially preventing anything from getting built.

That wouldn’t sit well with Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria. Along with Wynn Resorts executives, DeMaria wants the site to become an entertainment and hospitality destination to complement the $2.6 billion casino that Wynn opened across the street in 2019 and the related development the company is pursuing along Broadway. A Rev’s stadium would fit perfectly with that vision. City officials last year gave themselves the authority to take this site from plant owner Exelon — now Constellation, an Exelon spinoff — by eminent domain if necessary.

The eminent-domain threat forced Constellation’s hand, prompting it to hire brokerage CBRE to market the 45 acres. It no longer uses its shuttered turbines there, though Eversource has an easement to operate a switchyard; another section is essentially water, undevelopable. Not included are two natural gas fired units next door. Constellation gets special payments to keep those two going because of their importance to New England’s grid, until the spring of 2024. Then what remains of this decades-old power plant closes for good.

All a Constellation spokesman would say is that the company hopes to conclude the sale by year’s end, with Everett’s redevelopment plan in mind.

It’s in this context that the House leaders tucked the Everett language into the back of their economic development bill. Down-to-the-wire negotiations with the Senate got sidetracked by an unexpected revelation that the state may need to budget for nearly $3 billion in income tax credits. But the bill is not dead, by any means.

Legislative leaders are waiting for clarity on the exact cost of those credits. They could choose to pass much of the bill in an informal session, when roll calls can’t be taken. Controversial items like this Everett language are generally avoided in informal sessions because a single lawmaker can block a bill.

With CLF watching closely, it’s unlikely the Everett language could survive in an informal session. From CLF’s perspective, maintaining the state’s port infrastructure is crucial. Once an industrial port makes way for high-end development, CLF’s Deanna Moran argues, it’s gone for good. CLF doesn’t want oil tanks and dirty power plants, either. But Moran said these properties could be ideal for “blue-tech” and clean-energy uses, like the wind-farm work planned for Salem’s waterfront.

Legislators are only expected to meet in informal sessions until January, but it’s possible they could be called back for a rare special formal session to wrap up the tax cuts, bonding proposals, and other goodies in the bill. In a formal session, the Everett measure might very well make it through.

While there is precedent for removing properties from DPAs through legislation, Mystic Station’s road to redevelopment becomes considerably longer without State House help. The next option: ask the state’s Coastal Zone Management office for a formal DPA boundary review. The agency is currently reviewing such requests for two different areas in East Boston. One is led by warehouse developer Jacob Citrin, who wants to remove several industrial parcels on Route 1A from a port area. The second is being pursued by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, and involves properties in and around Central Square.

This route can be lengthy — no less than six months and often much longer. Citrine said he applied more than two years ago, and expects the final decision next month; BPDA initiated its request in early 2020. But in the case of the Mystic parcel, land-use experts say DPA regulations probably wouldn’t offer enough leeway to remove it from its respective port area anyway.

Another possible path is even more circuitous but could prove beneficial in the long run: rewriting the DPA rules. The system, established in the 1970s, is seen by many as anachronistic. State environmental regulators would include many waterfront stakeholders in that process — environmental groups, property owners, municipal officials. Julie Wormser of the Mystic River Watershed Association sees this as the best possible outcome: a robust regional conversation about updating the DPAs, instead of dealing with them on a piecemeal basis.

The fight for the future of this power-plant land might end up not only being about bringing relief to Revs fans who have long hoped for a soccer stadium to call their own. It could end up being about the kind of future we want for the industrial waterfronts in and around Boston, and what it will take to get there.

Jon Chesto can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.