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In South Boston, a tiny triangle of land prompts a big legal battle

A rendering of 21 - 35 West 2nd Street in South Boston. Transom Real Estate/Howeler + Yoon/Howeler + Yo

Around Greater Boston there are scraps of land that might seem too small to build on. But with housing in such acute demand, those scraps are sometimes worth fighting over.

One such case is playing out in a hot corner of South Boston, where two builders are battling in court over a quarter-acre triangle of undeveloped land just steps from the Red Line.

Transom Real Estate is planning to shoehorn in a six-story, 55-unit apartment building on Athens Street, the sort of project that has popped up like weeds all over this formerly industrial neighborhood. But there’s a twist: Not only would the Transom building not have parking, but tenants would be prohibited from getting street-parking permits from the city.


City Point Capital, the developer of the neighboring property, has sued Transom and the City of Boston, saying the parking scheme would not work and would violate zoning rules.

Transom is counter-suing City Point, saying the developer is upset that it failed to buy the Athens Street site and is using the parking issue to try to force Transom to walk away.

With construction sites or new buildings seemingly on every other block, South Boston may be an extreme example of a race that’s underway across the region, as investors bid up prices and developers battle for building sites before the red-hot housing market cools.

“There are only a few parcels left to build on,” said Derek Pajaczkowski, cochair of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association. “We’ve essentially been transformed into a pretty dense residential neighborhood. The lion’s share of it has been done.”

The Athens Street property was part of Gillette’s vast land holdings in the neighborhood — just a block or so from the World Shaving Headquarters complex. Gillette’s corporate parent, Procter & Gamble, has been selling off other properties, including the site where General Electric had planned its new headquarters. And despite its small size, competition was for fierce for the sliver of land at West Second and Athens streets when P&G put it on the market last year.


Gillette received many offers, a spokeswoman said, including from Transom and City Point, which had been leasing the Athens Street lot while it finished a hotel-condo project next door, on the corner of West Broadway and Dorchester Avenue.

As it became clear that P&G planned to sell to Transom, City Point principal Ryan Sillery made what Transom describes in its lawsuit as a series of threatening phone calls and e-mails, allegedly promising to “cause a war” and “sue everyone” if his company didn’t get the property and vowing to tie up any development there for years.

“Don’t poke the bear!” Sillery wrote in an e-mail to the P&G broker, according to the suit filed by Transom.

P&G sold to Transom anyway, for $5.8 million in May 2018, according to Suffolk County property records.

A spokeswoman said Transom was “the best fit.” It’s not clear how much City Point offered.

Site in hand, Transom pushed ahead with its development plans, winning neighborhood support and zoning approval in February. Sillery sent a letter to the Boston Planning & Development Agency objecting to the size of the building and its parking plan, but otherwise he and his partners largely stayed quiet in public.

Then in April, City Point sued, saying that as direct neighbors, the company, its condo owners, and hotel guests would bear the brunt of a bad zoning decision. Transom’s claims of threats, Sillery said in an e-mail to the Globe, are “100% false.”


“We only filed suit to protect our interest and all the condo owners in the building from the zoning violations,” Sillery wrote, before declining to answer further questions. “We look forward to speaking with the developers about the project.”

The legal battle is a bit of a twist on the usual zoning challenge from neighbors concerned about an overly large development, Typically, small groups of residents fight to stop a project they say is too big, a scenario playing out in Newton, Hanover, and other suburban communities where tensions about housing can run high. Here, it’s developer against developer, and the party claiming to be aggrieved, City Point, has just built properties that are much bigger than what Transom plans.

But neighbors have strong rights to challenge zoning changes, said a veteran real estate lawyer, Larry DiCara — especially in Boston, where zoning is often hashed out parcel by parcel.

And while rival developers more typically negotiate such disputes quietly, outside of the courtroom, there’s nothing stopping from them from pursuing a long and costly court fight.

“It can take a year, a year and a half, to resolve this sort of thing,” DiCara said. “It can get ugly.”

And the result can be a kind of limbo.

In South Boston, the West Broadway Neighborhood Association has worked well with both developers, Pajaczkowski said. Transom listened to residents’ concerns on Athens Street, he said, while Sillery recently sat down with the neighborhood group to talk through City Point Capital’s plans for redeveloping the Amhrein’s restaurant site nearby.


Now they’re at war. And a strip of land that could hold 55 apartments in a hot housing market will sit empty until the battle is over.

“We were hoping we’d see this under construction by now,” Pajaczkowski said. “Now it’s going to be a fight.”

Transom Real Estate/Howeler + Yoon/Howeler + Yoon

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.