Governor Baker at Mass DOT Headquarters announcing his state-owned real estate use plan. (photo by Jay Ash)

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From Governor Baker’s office I just received the following press release. I quote almost all of it, as it speaks for itself :

Baker today outlined the administration’s Real Estate Asset Leveraging (REAL) Strategy for developing unused or underutilized Commonwealth properties into new opportunities for affordable or market-rate housing, reducing government expenses, increasing revenue without taxes, capital investment in state properties, economic development, or open recreational space. Across our state agencies and authorities, the Commonwealth highlighted 42 near-term opportunities for public-private partnerships at an open house for interested parties.

“As the Commonwealth’s largest property owners, state government has an opportunity to leverage underutilized real estate to build housing and conserve open space, while driving economic growth and stronger communities across Massachusetts,” said Governor Baker. “We are excited to invite the private sector and community partners to participate in this process and look forward to unleashing their creativity and innovation to better use public land for the good of the Commonwealth.”

Kick-starting much State-owned land into beneficial uses was something baker mentioned from time to time during his 2014 campaign. Specifically he talked of it when campaigning in Boston. He held out an offer to the mayor : ease the permitting process, come up with a plan, and we will provide the land, cheaply.

At the time, I noted the wisdom of Baker’;s offer,m economically and politically. It promised partnership between tate and city, Baker and Walsh, Republican and Democrat.,

That promise has already become a Baker motif. This step takes the motif to a more difficult place, as the development of vacant land is probably the singled most contentious matter for voters in Boston, a city already dense with building. Yet if certain to arouse controversy, Baker’s offer bonds nicely with Walsh’;s own Imagine Boston 2030 plan to build 53,000 units of “affordable” housing. All that’s needed now is to know where the state-owned parcels are located.

There certainly is a need in Boston for housing that doesn’t cost a yacht’s worth of money. Average rental prices in most of the City show at least $ 2,100 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, in many neighborhoods more than that. I fully approve of the economic boom that has lifted Boston rents; after all, better a boom and good jobs than bust and no jobs. For residents, however, even good jobs may not keep up; thus the affordability movement is a present priority.

Mayor Walsh recently has proposed to raise the percentage of affordable units in any project seeking BRA approval. Baker’;s offer to lease — or sell ? — state-owned parcels to developers in Boston puts ground under future developers’ feet.

Can Baker require that at least some development built on state-owned land be developed for sale, not rental ? That would help the situation. Home ownership is one of the most stabilizing factors in neighborhood life. We shall see what Baker says.

Baker’s press release detailed the steps he plans to take :

· An inter-governmental REAL working group, spearheaded by the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, to meet regularly to evaluate proposals, develop ideas and ensure efficiency and timeliness.

· One stop shops at key landholding agencies to better manage Commonwealth real estate assets.

· Engagement of a private consultant to assist the Commonwealth in developing the next wave of parcels and partnerships in order to build a pipeline of projects.

· Reactivation of the sparingly used Asset Management Board as a flexible tool to work with the private sector on long-term leases.

· More effectively managing thousands of leases on state land in a more professional and progressive manner.

Over 40 initial properties were identified today for the solicitation of proposals, including:

· Opportunities in Boston to invest in high value properties for retail and housing.

· Parcels in Northampton ready for redevelopment.

· Major development parcels near highways in Plymouth, Carver and Taunton.

· Potential partnerships with the MBTA and MassDOT for fuel sales, ATMs and new service plazas.

· Green investment projects for anaerobic digestion and new solar installations.

· A renewed collaboration with our Sale Partnership Communities, who are redeveloping closed state hospitals in partnership with the Commonwealth.

· Opportunities to upgrade statewide telecom infrastructure.

· Online database featuring all available properties in one page that includes each project name, acreage, how long they have been available and anticipated release.

As yhou can see, Baker’s land use proposal will not happen overnight or be ready for roll out any time soon., Baker is the ultimate detail man, who makes moves one at a time, a fuss budget of preparation  like General Montgomery in World War II. The beauty of his caution is that he’s unlikely to have to retreat because of mistake. The less than beauty is that the initiative will move forward so gradually as to not appear to be moving at all.

It will be safe, not sexy.

That said, I fully approve Baker’s idea. That state-owned land lingers unused helps no one.  If he;’s right that his land-use initiative can increase state revenue, all the better. I’m not sure that lease will be the preferred legal vehicle for developers taking an interest, but from those who are willing to lease, income will indeed accrue to the state. Why not take it ? I see earned income, if it’s available, as always a wiser bet than taxes.

Lastly, I quote the press release;’s final paragraph, in which you can see how just how bureaucratic is the hold now in place upon the unused lands that Baker seeks to put to profitable purpose :

“The REAL Strategy was announced at an Open for Business event hosted by the Baker-Polito Administration and attended by representatives of businesses and key state agencies, including the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), MassDevelopment and DCAMM. Of the Commonwealth’s over 20,000 properties, approximately 15,000 are held by DCAMM, 4,000 by the MBTA and 1,700 by MassDOT.”

So much process to kick start, so much initiative to generate. Let’s see where this proposal goes, and if.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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