The stretch of East Boston along Chelsea Creek is hidden, weed-choked, forlorn.
But not unwanted.
This one mile-plus of old railroad right-of-way, running parallel to busy Route 1A just a block away, is becoming a controversial focal point amid Boston’s development boom.
Cargo Ventures, the blue-collar sibling of high-rise developer Millennium Partners, would like to build an access road there for its industrial properties in that corridor. The project could send trucks to nearby Logan Airport by connecting with the Coughlin bypass route to the southwest, keeping those vehicles out of Route 1A’s notorious bottlenecks.
After Cargo Ventures expressed interest in the site, the state Department of Transportation and the MBTA put the easement rights for roughly nine acres along the creek out to bid. Interested buyers need to match or exceed the property’s present value, which is roughly $2.5 million. Bids are due July 30. While another bidder might emerge, it’s hard to imagine Cargo Ventures facing much competition.
But the company will need to contend with critics who say the state shouldn’t relinquish a transit right-of-way so quickly, particularly in such a traffic-choked corridor.
Two former state transportation secretaries — Fred Salvucci and Jim Aloisi — cosigned a letter on Monday calling for the state to end the bid process. The need for state officials to improve the traffic situation in East Boston has never been more urgent, they wrote, particularly with massive development plans advancing for the old Suffolk Downs track, on the other side of Route 1A. They say there isn’t a compelling reason to sell off these easements, and that state officials instead should be assessing the land’s use for a high-occupancy-vehicle connection.
The letter was addressed to transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Joe Aiello, chairman of the MBTA fiscal and management control board, and MBTA general manager Steve Poftak.
Aiello is already raising similar concerns. He says he was surprised to learn that the MBTA is preparing to sell off such a “potentially very valuable” right-of-way. He says Cargo Ventures’ plans could end up being the best use of the property. But before that determination is made, he would first rather see a public planning process for the entire Route 1A corridor. After all, redevelopments on several large properties — Suffolk Downs, Wonderland, Necco — in that area will add many more cars to the mix.
Some people who live nearby worry Cargo Ventures could add more development and parking capacity to the 14 or so acres it controls along Route 1A today — a mix of warehouses, commissaries for airlines, and a park-and-fly lot.
Cargo Ventures principal Jacob Citrin portrayed his vision as a big improvement over the “neglected and long unused strip of land” behind his firm’s properties. He says his goals would be to improve public access and climate resiliency along Chelsea Creek — such as through a bike and pedestrian path along the proposed bypass — while taking trucks off public streets and growing the city’s industrial job base. He declined to say much about his plans for the properties. The right-of-way wouldn’t necessarily be closed off forever to public transit. The documents include a termination clause: Should MassDOT or the MBTA want that land for a transportation project, state officials could take control as long as it lets the future owner know two years in advance.
Scott Bosworth, state undersecretary of transportation, says the state would also have the right to run buses on any new bypass road. A private-sector project there would clean up an abandoned property that badly needs it, Bosworth says, and could help protect the city from sea level rise. Putting the easement rights out to bid, he says, would help jump-start that discussion.
The deal is being watched closely by HYM Investment Group managing director Tom O’Brien, the master developer for Suffolk Downs. He envisions remaking the 163-acre track property into a massive mixed-use complex — an entirely new neighborhood — over the next two decades. Think 16 million square feet of construction, with 10,000 housing units. O’Brien prefers fewer industrial uses next door, not more. He also would like to see a path along Chelsea Creek — and isn’t sure yet whether Cargo Ventures’ plans could help or hinder that concept.
Either way, big changes are coming to Boston’s northern entrance — and an overgrown strip of hidden land could play a pivotal role.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.