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Will deep pockets doom this dream?

Chelsea environmental activists have raised millions in a couple of weeks to buy a property that could transform the community. But speculators might get in their way.

Roseann Bongiovanni (left) of GreenRoots prepared to give a tour of the Chelsea site the group is hoping to purchase.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When last we left Chelsea, our heroes were in the midst of a wildly ambitious quest to take back 17 acres of waterfront land for their community. Now, it appears, the deep-pocketed private developer they feared would thwart their ambitions has materialized.

On Sunday, I wrote about a plan by GreenRoots and other community and environmental advocates to acquire this swatch of contaminated land on the Chelsea and Mill Creeks in the hopes of cleaning it up and turning it into a site for affordable housing, community spaces, and a waterside park.

GreenRoots head Roseann Bongiovanni and her partners, taking the next logical leap in their environmental efforts, were racing to raise the millions it would take to buy the land, from a China-based developer facing foreclosure, before an auction planned for Friday, Oct. 7.


The site, once the Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Co., is spectacular but troubled, and has defeated more than one developer over the years. Having sat idle for more than a decade, this collection of abandoned industrial buildings and buckled paths is so overgrown that it is now one of the city’s largest green spaces.

Still, anybody who knows Chelsea knows the property’s potential, especially as a community asset. So, working virtually around the clock, GreenRoots and others have managed to raise several million dollars in a matter of a couple of weeks, and are closing in on millions more. Small donations have been rolling in, as have offers of help from politicians, foundations, and city and state officials.

“The groundswell of support means we are not the only ones who see this as the opportunity of a lifetime,” Bongiovanni said. “People are resonating with the idea that Chelsea folks deserve the right to access their waterfront, that for decades has been closed off to them, and they deserve the right to have clean and healthy neighborhoods.”


Lord knows, Chelsea could use a fairy tale ending here.

But every fairy tale must have a villain, or at least somebody whose priority is to make a buck. And in this story, it comes in the form of a real estate investment trust that city manager Tom Ambrosino says has offered a huge amount of money for the Forbes site — money even these superhuman community advocates can’t match — and certainly more than anybody who knows the place believes it is worth.

Ambrosino says the seller’s attorney did not tell him who was behind the trust. But he did say they have no interest in building any housing: Instead, Ambrosino said, they’re hoping to use that prime location to put yet more back-of-house operations in Chelsea — this time, it’s a battery storage plant for renewable energy.

A different company already has an effort underway to turn a nearby piece of land into a battery storage facility. Ambrosino said he doubted the city would permit a second. But since the city can’t take the Forbes site by eminent domain, he said, “We have to just let these market forces play out.”

Market forces are what got Chelsea here in the first place. They made this immigrant, poor, and working-class community a dumping ground for all of the infrastructure people with more money and power didn’t want in their own neighborhoods. And, now that Chelsea residents have spent decades demanding a better, and cleaner, city, market forces are pushing them out as Chelsea becomes more desirable and housing becomes less affordable.


If those forces prevail yet again on Friday, and the community is outbid for the site, Chelsea advocates will fight to salvage as much as they can from those leafy acres. The city will insist on real public access to the waterfront, for example. And GreenRoots will stay on the case.

“We are no longer going to sit back and let people make a profit off our backs,” Bongiovanni said. “We are not going to let a developer come in and do a project the community doesn’t think is beneficial. We will fight just as we’ve fought other toxic proposals in our city.” She points out that Chelsea and its neighbors have successfully held off an electrical substation across the creek for eight years so far.

Chelsea is done being controlled by the market. Whoever is trying to buy those 17 acres should consider that a warning.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.