Paul McMorrow

Hawking city land

By Paul McMorrow
March 18, 2011

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THE SALE of municipal real estate can be a one-time cash grab. Or it can be a tool for civic uplift, a means of correcting past mistakes, a mechanism for building long-term wealth. It all depends on how it’s done.

Near the end of Mayor Kevin White’s reign, Boston shed several large parking garages as a way of generating quick cash to stabilize municipal finances that had been turned upside-down by Proposition 2 1/2. But there was also a wider economic development motive at play.

Selling off public parking structures returned land to private hands. Developers took the garages, tore them down, and turned them into economic engines. Don Chiofaro’s International Place replaced the Fort Hill Square garage. The Kilby Street garage gave way to 75 State Street. The St. James Avenue garage was leveled and replaced by 222 Berkeley and 500 Boylston. The Kingston-Bedford Street garage, dumped by Mayor Ray Flynn, is now State Street Corp’s Lincoln Street headquarters.

It doesn’t take an afternoon of staring at the Government Center garage, a hulking concrete structure that White sold but was never torn down and replaced, to see that active buildings do more for a city’s vibrancy than bleak, block-deadening parking garages do.

Still, the effects of the garage slaying go far beyond good urban design. The sale of underutilized parking properties provided a permanent boost to Boston’s coffers. Valuable downtown real estate came on the tax rolls. Last year, the towers that replaced the garages at Fort Hill, Kilby Street, St. James Avenue, and Kingston-Bedford Street were assessed at $1.8 billion; they provided $56 million in property tax revenues last year.

Maybe it’s because we’ve seen municipal real estate sales dramatically transform neighborhoods that the current effort at hawking city-owned land seems so underwhelming.

At least one of the properties Mayor Menino put on the market earlier this month has an obvious buyer. The Government Center garage sits next door to the municipal building at 43 Hawkins St. The owners of the garage have a couple hundred million dollars tied up in it, and not because the parking racket is all that wonderful. They’re hoping to make a nice score off a multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of the garage. Redevelopment prospects are greatly enhanced if the garage’s owners control the block next door. So the Hawkins property should be an easy sell, and it will eventually help generate mammoth tax receipts.

The same can’t be said for the other two sets of properties Menino has targeted — two North Street buildings and the Fire Department’s Southampton Street headquarters.

City officials are confident the two North End properties will make for prime housing development opportunities. They believe the massive Fire Department holdings on Southampton Street, which total 185,000 square feet, can push Newmarket Square’s food-service economy forward.

They’re decent-looking properties and all. The problem is, those two batches of properties make up more than half the land offering. At under $40 million in assessed value, the whole package seems timid. It certainly precludes the kind of dynamic upside White and Flynn were able to drive — especially when the city is refusing to part with its more valuable holdings.

The current School Department headquarters at Court Square, which Menino is keeping, is worth $32 million. The Winthrop Square garage, which was to have been home to that mythical 1,000-foot tower, is assessed at $27 million. Both are far bigger development plays than the stuff Menino has put on the block so far. And the bigger the development play, the bigger the economic benefit to the public.

Then there are Parcels 8, 9, and 10, three Roxbury tracts the city and state own jointly. They’re leftovers from a disastrous urban highway that never got built. They could serve as a new gateway into Dudley Square if they were ever built out, but the overgrown lots have sat vacant for decades. City Hall is now talking about putting out the parcels to bid, at some indeterminate date. There’s a world of potential here, but not so much action.

To be sure, it seems like a difficult time to be talking about big new development projects. Building on public real estate takes time, though. If City Hall said it was selling off the Winthrop garage or the Roxbury parcels tomorrow, it could easily take two years to get a shovel in the ground. That’s a lot of waiting, even if you’re not sitting around and hoping for better days.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.