Romney and Wonderland: Who Did What and When?

As the Presidential race focuses on things national and international, many have forgotten the local angle of former Gov. Mitt Romney and the imprint he left on the state during his one term in office.

And one of the imprints locally that has sparked some debate is that of the City’s most important development in decades – the Wonderland Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

One of the most visible economic development changes Romney made while in office is now taking shape at Revere Beach’s Wonderland TOD – and depending on who one speaks with – Romney either had a great deal of influence on the development or he had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The answer seems to be – looking at Journal archives and documents – that even though the underlying work for development had already occurred, Romney shaped the overall development idea. However, that fact is something that Republicans locally have had a hard time conveying.

That was prominently displayed last summer at the ribbon cutting for the new Wonderland Parking Garage. Some local Republicans had hoped that Romney would be mentioned as starting the ball rolling on the TOD, but none of the politicians running the event were willing to give that credit.

Revere City Councillor Tony Zambuto said Romney and his staff were instrumental in shaping the Wonderland TOD, and he said there is no debate about that.

“The Democrats around here are going to say he didn’t do anything for that TOD,” said Zambuto. “When we had that ribbon cutting last summer, I told them they needed to make note of Romney, but they didn’t want to. It’s very clear. Romney used Revere Beach as the kick-off for his Transit Oriented Development Program with (former Mass Development Director) Doug Foy. We wouldn’t be where we’re at on the Beach right now if it wasn’t for Romney. They can have selective memory now if they want, but what I recollect is that I was excited about his idea. He deserves credit for that, locally and nationally.”

Local Republican George Anzuoni, the City’s Director of Finance, agreed.

“Romney definitely brought that idea to the table and directed a lot of resources our way during the planning of that project down there,” he said. “He does deserve credit for that, certainly.”

One of the main champions of TODs still to this day in Massachusetts is the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). Executive Director Marc Draisen said that Romney was, indeed, very interested in TODs at the outset of his administration and established a fund to help such projects – including Wonderland.

“He did start out with a great interest in smart growth, TODs, and smart development,” he said. “That Romney at that time was focused on smart growth as an efficient way of distributing the state’s resources…That lasted through the first two years of the Romney Administration and then he began to lose interest in it. It wasn’t abandoned, but he wasn’t as interested anymore. We struggled to keep the TOD fund and they stopped doing competitive rounds…He was strong to start with and then as he began catering to his national ambitions, he moved away from it.”

Luckily for Revere, that effort came at the outset of the administration and was seen through to the end.

The archives from Journal stories in 2003 pretty much confirm that Romney did shape the development at Wonderland. While Mayor Tom Ambrosino had already done yeoman’s work in the process of laying the foundation for some sort of development at the Station, it seems to have been Romney and Foy that shaped the development as a transit-oriented mixed-use project.

In December 2003, Romney rode the Blue Line Train out to Wonderland and met local officials from House Speaker Bob DeLeo to former Mayor Ambrosino to Councillor Zambuto.

Also there were mayors of Woburn, Quincy, and Malden, as well as former Sen. President Bob Travaglini and current Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein.

The event was a public kick-off of Romney and Foy’s plan to eliminate urban sprawl and reduce new development in far-off places that required new highway construction. Their idea was to link housing, transportation and commercial activities in one development located on a public transportation hub. It was deemed Transit Oriented Development (TOD) on that day in Revere.

“The idea is to see if we can take advantage of a great site like this in Revere,” said Romney in his 2003 visit. “Let’s take what is here and make it a real winner by associating with it housing, businesses and public transportation instead of needlessly cutting down more trees for development further out.”

In his 15-minute speech back then, Romney also goaded state officials to bolster their investment in Revere Beach, hinting that to make the plan work, the state needed to step up and improve the maintenance and aesthetics of the Beach – something that eventually transpired a few years later.

“By improving parklands and access to the Beach, we can really make this a much more valuable place,” Romney said at that 2003 press conference.

At the time, Romney also refused to support an expansion of the Blue Line – an issue that was big at the time, but now is all but forgotten.

“We don’t just want to build expensive railways out into the Commonwealth without ensuring that the quality of life for citizens isn’t negatively impacted,” he said.

And did Romney “reach across the aisle” for support? Well, on this issue in Revere, he certainly seemed to have done so. Working in close concert with then-Sen. President Travaglini, the two pols pledged mutual support and cooperation for the TOD idea at Wonderland Station.

“I and Sen. Travaglini, we’re not of the same party but we’re both citizens of the same state,” the governor said. “We might not agree on everything but we couldn’t be closer on the issue of housing.”

Said Travaglini at the time, “If it works anywhere it’s going to work here. There have been attempts in the past to heighten the use of this location and nothing has happened. I think this is a recipe for success and I want to be a part of it. Whenever this administration puts forth a good idea, we’re going to support it wholeheartedly.”

Former Mayor Ambrosino at the time indicated that the Romney Administration had been instrumental in helping craft bid documents and to refine the overall idea for the development. However, even in 2003, the staunch Democrat was not willing to give Romney full credit.

“Something was going to happen here whether the governor was involved or not,” said Ambrosino at the 2003 press conference. “However, to have the governor use Wonderland as a kickoff point of his program is a wonderful thing. We’re going to have some good development down here and the more people on board the better the development.”

Previously, in August 2003, Foy – who was Romney’s newly appointed chief of the streamlined Mass Development – visited Wonderland and the Journal to tout the burgeoning idea of TODs in Revere.

At the time, Foy said Revere was poised to help the Romney administration meet its goal of eliminating urban sprawl. He said the administration was interested in developing and investing in older communities like Revere that want, and are prepared, for new development.

“We’d much rather see it happen in Revere than in cornfields and forests to the west where we have to build and maintain new highways, sewers and transportation networks,” he said at the time.

Concluded Zambuto, “A lot of these entrenched politicians only remember him negatively because he cut their local aid…He was a great governor, really. He put Revere on the map and used Revere as his centerpiece.”

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