Hours after The Boston Globe published a column suggesting the push to build a professional soccer stadium at Columbia Point had stalled, the area's top lawmakers blasted the process behind the project and the alleged backroom efforts by the University of Massachusetts to get it off the ground.
"Dorchester residents deserve a transparent process," State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry said in a statement released Wednesday. "This is not good business and not good government."
Talks between stakeholders over how to build a soccer stadium and concert venue at the site of the old Bayside Expo Center have been in the works for over a year. According to reports, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who also owns the New England Revolution soccer team, has been angling for the spot that's owned by the University of Massachusetts..
Boston Globe writer Shirley Leung published a column Wednesday morning suggesting that the Boston Teachers Union, owners of a crucial property adjacent to the Bayside Expo Center, were asking too much from Kraft for their property and killing the whole deal in the process.
Leung wrote that BTU president Richard Stutman gave the scribe a tour of the site last week.
“The BTU wants to work with the city, UMass, and the Krafts to reach a solution that meets all of our respective needs,” Stutman told Leung. Stutman did not mention working with the surrounding community or elected state officials.
Leung's description of the negotiations over a plan for a stadium caught Forry and her House colleagues off guard.
"When UMass decides that they're going to go with the singular entity and not really open it up to see what other bids can they get that are great for taxpayers, I think that is where we find a problem," Forry told WGBH News Wednesday.
In her statement, Forry accused UMass of "acting in secret and without bringing members of the community and their elected representatives to the table, until backroom deals come to light through stories in the media."
"This is where we got to peel back the layers and we got to peel it to see where are we? And for folks to say they don't have a proposal, they're not sure of what the proposal would look like, is disingenuous," Forry said.
The lawmakers want UMass to pause their development plans to reevaluate their proposal.
In an emailed statement, UMass spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said the university system is taking a "responsible course in participating in discussions about this potential project."
"The University of Massachusetts has been transparent regarding the status of a prospective development of the Bayside parcel, including in meetings and discussions with elected officials representing the Boston campus and its surrounding neighborhoods both individually and collectively as recently as Tuesday, Jan. 3," Cournoyer wrote, adding that the university is exploring ways to develop the site to generate revenue and scholarship funding for students, as well as invest in transportation infrastructure.
Cournoyer wrote that UMass does "not currently have a firm proposal to present to legislators or anyone else," about the site, contrary to Leung's description of negotiations with the BTU.
The Columbia Point area, includes UMass Boston, housing developments, the state archives, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, as well as schools and a health center.
If Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and UMass President Marty Meehan had a deal to develop the site, the university system could have a lot of authority over what goes there. Land developed by the UMass Building Authority is exempt from local zoning rules and municipal approvals. A UMass-built project would also be exempt from the state's open bidding law, meaning a favored developer or tenant could be put in place with little scrutiny.
Forry and the two House members whose districts abut the site, Rep. Nick Collins and Dorchester Rep. Dan Hunt, met with Baker on Wednesday to discuss the soccer stadium plan as well as other priorities around Columbia Point and Morrissey Blvd. The electeds say their meeting with Baker was a positive one, but they emphasized their desire to see more community outreach incorporated into the planning process for the site.
"The stadium came up with the governor and he said that if there was something before him that he would notify us specifically but also have a robust public process," Hunt said. The lawmakers said they also discussed added investment for the MBTA's JFK/UMass station and Kosciuszko Circle, both transportation linchpins near the Bayside site.
The senator and representatives insist that their objection to UMass' planning is not another case of Bostonian NIMBYism, but simply an insistence that development of state-owned land by a state authority should go through the same procedural and community steps other projects must adhere to.
"At the end of the day, if there's going to be significant community opposition, it's almost like what's the point?" Collins said.
Forry wrote in the statement that she is prepared to work through the Legislature "to protect the best interests of the public and my constituents."
"State agencies acting with impunity, handpicking a singular entity to develop a public site is wrong. I expect the University of Massachusetts, our public university, to open up the process to members of the Dorchester community and have an open bidding process for this development.," Forry wrote.
Rep. Collins' South Boston district includes Columbia Point, seaside property that's been eyed for development by UMass and outside developers, including the team behind Boston's failed Olympic bid.
"We have one shot to get this right, and we need to have an open, public process that considers what's best for UMass, the neighbors, and area businesses and the city of Boston," Collins wrote in a statement.
According to a statement from Walsh's office, the Boston Teachers Union filed renovation plans with the city in 2015 and the mayor has spoken to the union about potential moves out of their building over the past several years. But according to Walsh's chief communications officer Laura Oggeri, that's as far as discussions of the parcel have gone and the "informal conversations are not specific to any projects."
"Mayor Walsh has always been interested in exploring the possibility of a stadium in Boston and he is open to having a conversation about it. It's important that any discussion about a stadium includes how it can be used as a catalyst for bringing much-needed improvements to any surrounding neighborhoods," Walsh said in a statement.
The future of the Columbia Point peninsula has been a hot topic in Dorchester circles for years. Community groups, UMass and elected officials have held large group discussions for how best to use the space and drafted a "master plan" to govern its development.