Monday, May 20, 2024

Parcels around Webster Avenue have been emptied and combined for potential sale to the City of Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A purchase of land between Inman and Union squares is in jeopardy as city councillors consider their support, city staff said Monday. 

The combined properties at and around 333 Webster Ave. in Cambridge’s Wellington-Harrington neighborhood – one of the four parcels is over the Somerville line – were proposed on Monday’s council agenda as being a useful “friendly” eminent domain purchase by Cambridge at $14.4 million. The first use would be for a space-strapped Public Works Department.

Neither the price nor the use won over councillors.

Described in the agenda packet as being around an acre, the properties are closer to a combined 0.8 acres, suffering in comparison with anther friendly land taking in December in West Cambridge: $18.5 million for 4 acres. Councillor Patty Nolan, who’s urged the city to look for and buy land, was disappointed not just by the price in comparison to other parcels she’s presented as opportunities for the city, but by the fact the parcels had been assembled by a third party for sale at a potentially inflated price.

“I am not going to be able to support this purchase,” Nolan said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the city.”

The land would be used by Public Works – likely for its parks and buildings divisions – “for the foreseeable future,” deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said. No permanent structures would be built, and “our hope is that over the next number of years, other properties will come our way so we can build better in a different location. But obviously, there are no guarantees.”

“We have to buy whatever we can get our hands on, and choose what uses make the most sense there. It’s clear that DPW needs more land, and probably in that direction of the city,” councillor Dennis Carlone said.

Nolan and others saw housing as a better use for the site, though, especially because it’s near a new green line MBTA station in Somerville’s Union Square. The site is considered within a “square” in terms of Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Zoning, so under a current proposal the property’s relatively small footprint could hold a 15-story tower of all-affordable homes, councillor Quinton Zondervan said. 

“The hope is that in the long term, it would at least be some kind of mixed use that would add housing. So I’m planning to put in a policy order to that effect just to make sure that we have clarity,” Zondervan said.

Testing a time constraint

Despite some “sticker shock,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said she entered the discussion prepared to support the purchase. The complexity of the packaging that emerged in the back-and-forth between councillors and city staff, led by chief assessor Gayle Willett, wound up leaving Mallon with enough questions that she chose to use her “charter right” to set the debate aside for one regular meeting.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s an urgency,” Mallon said, announcing plans to work with Zondervan on a policy order for long-term use.

That hit staff harder than expected.

The land taking was supposed to be before the council a week ago, said director of assessment Bob Reardon, and the seller would likely be entertaining other offers “at this point.”

“There is a time constraint on this because there have been other offers,” Reardon said. “We had a window of opportunity to negotiate … They granted us an extension to May 8, but I don’t know what would happen if this deadline slips any further.”

Councillors were united on another real estate matter, passing unanimously a policy order asking the City Manager’s Office to look at buying Lesley University property that has come on the market. The university posted a half-dozen listings April 28 worth an estimated $38.2 million.