Menino's Suffolk Downs Problem

Globe columnist Brian McGrory took up one of our favorite topics here at Boston Daily today (ok, one of my favorite topics), writing about the uncomfortable relationship between Suffolk Downs, Vornado Realty Trust, and Mayor Tom Menino. It works like this: Vornado is the giant real estate firm from New York responsible for that equally giant hole in the ground at the Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing (Vornado was supposed to build a huge mixed use luxury building there, but plans fell through with the economy). Considering that 2012 will be the fifth year of that unsightly pit’s existence, Menino hates Vornado very much. He’s said as much out loud several times.

On the flip side, the mayor has long had a cozy relationship with Suffolk Downs. For years he’s been advocating for at least slots and then a full resort casino at the East Boston track and is tight with one of its owners, Joe O’Donnell. Where things get sticky is that Vornado also owns a 20 percent stake in Suffolk Downs. You can bet there’s little that would make the mayor angrier than Vornado pulling in casino money hand over fist while still doing nothing about the disaster in Downtown Crossing. As I wrote in a recent profile of the company and its notoriously hard-driving chairman, Steven Roth, Vornado is known for holding out for the perfect deal. They aren’t going to do anything with Downtown Crossing until what they consider the exact right moment, no matter how much everybody here in Boston hates the state of Downtown Crossing.

That presents a problem for Menino. In the event that the state gaming commission awards a casino license to Suffolk Downs, would the mayor really hold up the casino project until Vornado takes care of its mess at Filene’s? McGrory seems to think so. He wrote, “If you don’t see cranes in Downtown Crossing in the coming months, you won’t likely ever see cards turning at Suffolk Downs.”

It may be the case that Menino is telling that to people behind closed doors in hopes of motivating Vornado, but when push comes to shove, I have a hard time believing that it’s anything more than posturing. Would the mayor really turn away thousands of jobs and delay a project he’s been practically begging for all out of spite? Of course, Hizzona is notorious for nursing a grudge, but, again, the jobs. As the Herald reported yesterday (complete with enthusiastic quotes from Menino), the people at Suffolk Downs say their project would create 2,250 of them.

All along, the problem with Vornado is that they hold all the cards (pun intended). They own the land in Downtown Crossing and have a balance sheet so deep — with $20.5 billion in assets — that it’s no skin off their back to let the site sit there, looking like something out of post-blitz London. It’s frustrating, but there’s not much the mayor can do about it. By the same token, Menino can rant as much as he wants about Vornado’s involvement in Suffolk Downs, but in the end, he can’t force them out of the ownership group. And there’s no second option for him: it’s either a casino at Suffolk Downs or none in Boston at all. Would Menino really forgo thousands of jobs out of pure spite? Maybe, but in this awful economy — the same awful economy that caused work to stop on the Filene’s project in the first place — I have a hard time believing it.