When John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002, as part of the three-way ownership deal that ended up with the Florida Marlins in the hands of Jeffrey Loria and the Montreal Expos eventually being moved to Washington, it was seen as a victory for opponents of tearing down historic ballparks and replacing them at public expense: The old ownership’s plan for a new, larger Fenway Park went out the window, and Henry instead set out to renovate the 1912 ballpark with mostly private money, though he did get $80 million in state and federal historic preservation credits.
Henry also set his sights on the Fenway neighborhood around the park, with an eye toward making money by expanding his team’s footprint outside the stadium proper. He bought several adjacent buildings, moving some ballpark operations into them, and struck a deal with the city to close down Yawkey Way (now Jersey Street because former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was a racist jerk who was the last owner in MLB to bring in a non-white player) on game days for a pittance so he could use it as an outdoor concessions mall. And now Henry is preparing his biggest move yet, seeking city approval to partner with two development firms to build 2.1 million square feet of office, residential, and retail towers on eight acres of land near Fenway:
“The Project’s guiding principle is to allow the city fabric to envelop and embrace the historic ballpark and create welcoming, people-first places and buildings that contribute to the quality and vitality of the public realm in the heart of the Fenway neighborhood year-round,” WS [Development] wrote in its letter to the [Boston Planning & Development Agency].
They also plan to shut down Jersey Street — which today is closed on Red Sox game days but otherwise open to traffic — to create a permanent pedestrian plaza alongside Fenway Park. That would happen only after the extension of Ross Way — which today connects Boylston and Van Ness Streets — all the way through to Brookline Avenue. A mix of storefronts and taller buildings would line Jersey Street, according to images filed with the letter.
The project also calls for buildings on a large surface parking lot across Brookline Avenue from Fenway Park, and on the site of a squat garage along Landsdowne Street behind the Green Monster. Longer term, the group is considering building a so-called “air rights” development over the Turnpike behind that garage — though those highly-complex projects typically take years of careful planning.
Here are some renderings, complete with skyways and clip-art people enjoying leisurely strolls (with their bicycles, for some reason) along public promenades:
Is this a land-development-rights stadium scam, like is becoming all the rage these days? Not precisely: Henry doesn’t appear to be asking for public money, and there’s no quid pro quo where he’s threatening to leave town if he doesn’t get what he wants or anything like that. It’s just Henry behaving like other local developers who have taken advantage of booming real estate values to erect a ton of high-rise buildings in the Fenway area. (If you haven’t been to a Red Sox game lately, check out what’s happened to Boylston Street.)
Still, developer scams are a thing too, and this has all the hallmarks of one: Henry would almost certainly need to demand a rezoning to allow for higher development than would otherwise be allowed on land that he or his partners bought for a price based on lower zoning limits. Plus, there’s that bit about shutting down Jersey Street permanently, which while maybe a good idea from a pedestrian traffic-flow point of view, still amounts to a land grab to make up for Fenway Park’s small footprint by annexing his own version of Baltimore’s Eutaw Street.
As with the original Fenway renovation deal, I don’t feel the need to call out the pitchforks and torches — this could be so, so much worse for both Boston taxpayers and Boston fans of historic stadiums and historic neighborhoods. Still, it’s decidedly an indication of how billionaires, whether they own sports teams or not (but it helps), can leverage their way into redesigning entire areas of cities. In American capitalism, we get not the cities that we deserve, but the cities that our 700-pound gorillas think will make them the most money.