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Chesto means business

MBTA is pushed to study air rights development at Cabot Yard

And the T uses Cabot Yard around the clock to park and maintain buses and Red Line trains. But the air space above it could be a new frontier for development.
And the T uses Cabot Yard around the clock to park and maintain buses and Red Line trains. But the air space above it could be a new frontier for development. Lane Turner/Globe Staff /File 2015/Globe Staff

The most valuable piece of untapped real estate near downtown Boston might just be made of thin air.

Senator Nick Collins and Representative David Biele of South Boston want to see if the latest prize in Boston’s hot real estate market can be found at the edge of their neighborhood: above the MBTA’s sprawling Cabot Yard. They sent a letter to MBTA general manager Steve Poftak on Tuesday that urges the T to issue a “request for information” to the development community, to evaluate leasing air rights above the tracks.

If done right, the legislators say, a development there could raise hundreds of millions for the cash-strapped T. They point to the recent success at the Bayside Expo site, less than two miles away. UMass just netted a long-term lease valued at $235 million after seeking proposals for the 20-acre property.


The MBTA, meanwhile, controls nearly 40 acres at Cabot Yard — roughly twice the Bayside’s size, and closer to downtown. But we’re talking about air rights here, not terra firma. Always a tricky proposition in Boston. And the T uses Cabot around the clock to park and maintain buses and Red Line trains.

In response to the letter, a T spokesman says Poftak will ask the agency’s staff to take another look at redevelopment opportunities at Cabot.

This wouldn’t be the first time. In 2016, Collins, then a state rep, and then-senator Linda Dorcena Forry pushed T officials to study Cabot’s development potential. (Picture: Boston’s answer to Hudson Yards, the 28-acre complex under way over train tracks in midtown Manhattan.) MBTA officials started preparing to study decking over a 5.5-acre section of Cabot Yard. But they shelved the feasibility study in early 2017, citing unanticipated expenses related to the complexity of building over an active rail yard.

That rebuff prompted Collins to file a bill in January that calls for a commission that would examine all the MBTA’s real estate assets in Boston — nearly 200 acres of property, according to his office — for revenue opportunities. But Collins says he doesn’t want to wait for that legislation to pass to get moving on Cabot Yard.


Collins, who opposes the T’s latest plan to raise fares, says he prefers that the agency would turn to long-term leasing for additional revenue. He’s also emboldened by the Bayside price, as well as other blockbuster deals nearby.

More could be coming. The potential for this industrial area that separates the South End and South Boston, in the Southeast Expressway’s shadow, emerged during the city’s aborted pursuit of the 2024 Olympics bid four years ago. Widett Circle, just to the southwest of Cabot, would have been home to the main Olympic stadium.

Now, pieces of that Olympic vision are in play. The food wholesalers at Widett are close to a deal to sell their 18 acres. And Mayor Marty Walsh has been trying to redevelop some or all of the city’s public works yard on Frontage Road, another 18 acres.

Unlike those two, Cabot Yard would be heavily reliant on air rights. The difficulties of spanning active highways and train tracks have vexed Boston developers time and again.

Rob Griffin, a top executive at brokerage Newmark Knight Frank, says it’s hard to imagine a better time in the city’s history to tackle such a challenging project. He has never seen such demand for development opportunities in Boston as he’s seeing right now. He should know: His firm handled the Bayside deal.


Collins and Biele don’t want to just leave it up to the T. If there is a buck to be made in Boston real estate, the thinking goes, the private sector is much better positioned to figure out how to do it.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.