Suffolk Downs received a largely positive response this week to an environmental plan for the $1 billion resort casino it has proposed to develop alongside its thoroughbred racetrack with partner Caesars Entertainment.
Presenting on their home turf — inside the track’s clubhouse — with many current and former employees present, members of the development team described a lush new environment for the area surrounding Suffolk Downs, one that would replace much of its expansive parking lot with open, green spaces and move many cars into a mid-rise parking garage.
“If you’ve been to Las Vegas, if you’ve been to a number of the suburban casinos, they’re big buildings, and everything is kind of pushed together,” said architect David Manfredi at the Wednesday night public meeting hosted by state officials who must review the plan under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.
“Our goal here is to pull the pieces apart, make these individual buildings, create pedestrian ways, create more green space, make all of this frontage very green, all of these spaces very green,” Manfredi said.
The plan would surround the approach to Suffolk Downs from Route 1A with plantings that would return portions of the area to its natural state as a wetland while introducing a lawn-like “meadow” area with a new pedestrian pathway leading to the nearby MBTA station. Trees would shield views of a neighboring field of fuel tanks.
The plan would place the new resort hotel near the southern end of the existing grandstand structure, so that its sweeping, semi-circular glass façade would be the first architectural element seen by visitors.
Behind that building, a new parking structure would replace an existing lot and offset spaces lost by the redevelopment as green space of much of the track’s existing expanse of ground-level parking.
“This Caesars project is going to be the greenest casino facility in the country … if not the world,” said Joe Guziewicz, vice president of design and construction for Caesars Entertainment. “That’s my push to these guys constantly,” Guziewicz said of the development team.
Unlike some past community meetings where casino opponents have far outnumbered its supporters, many of the 100 or so people present on Wednesday praised Suffolk Downs and voiced hearty support for the resort. Even those who raised objections praised the environmental plan and the landscape sketches presented at the meeting.
“These plans really are beautiful, and if Suffolk Downs was building anything other than a casino, I think I would be wowed as well,” said Jessica Curtis, a resident of East Boston’s Wood Island area. “But the fact is that we’re bringing in something that will have significant impacts on substance use, drug and alcohol addictions, and crime rates in our communities.”
Many spoke of the 2,500 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs that Suffolk Downs predicts the casino would bring to the community. Richard Pedi, a union representative for the Carpenters Local 218 of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, spoke of the need for jobs to “help people get back on their feet” and to open up the trades to future generations.
“It’s a possibility for people from East Boston and Revere and the surrounding communities to join the apprenticeship program,” Pedi said. “All the trades have an apprenticeship program. We have grandchildren, we have children, brothers and sisters that may need to get into a trade. And it’s not only going to be a job for them, it’ll be a career.”
Responding to such statements, Curtis said several people in her family work or have worked in construction trades, and she is sympathetic to the need for jobs in those fields.
“I agree that we need more economic opportunity. I’m just not sure that this is the best fit for our community,” she said.
Curtis and others expressed concerns about increased traffic and how that would affect the precarious air quality in an area that already includes an airport and several industrial sites.
They asked about increased noise, impact of storm-water runoff into local wetlands, added pressures on the racing business that could endanger the lives of horses, and about the safety of casino visitors if Global Petroleum is able to follow through on a plan to carry millions of gallons of ethanol to a nearby facility each week.
But for many who support the casino, those concerns were outweighed by the pressing need for jobs, and the uncertainty of what might happen at the Suffolk Downs site if another type of development were proposed.
“Please, don’t draw the studies out a long time,” said Michael Calder, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103. “We need the jobs right now. Our members are hurting. They’ve been hurting for four years.”
Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com