Saturday, July 20, 2024

School construction is seen behind a vehicle parked at the National Guard Armory in West Cambridge on Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The purpose of buying state land next to the Tobin School and Vassal Lane Upper School campus was a little more clear Monday than a year ago – it could be used to expand sports fields, create learning areas and increase open space and walking paths, city staff said – but a $5.4 million appraisal caused some sticker shock among city councillors.

That price for 30,752 square feet of parking lot at the National Guard Armory of Cambridge was something of a conversation starter with the state, said director of assessment Bob Reardon, and not a final price. The proposed legislation that the council approved unanimously says the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance will do its own appraisal.

While councillor Patty Nolan said she was happy to see a land deal take another step forward, “it does seem more than I would have thought for a slice of land that no one else could use.”

“This is a site that is completely landlocked. The only access to it is through city land or state land,” which should make it worth very little, Nolan said.

The area is now an equipment staging area for the school renovations. Nolan has been pushing the city to buy the entire 122,560-square-foot armory site at 450 Concord Ave., West Cambridge since her time on the School Committee. She ramped up efforts after joining the council in 2020, calling the armory unused and noting that similar properties have been sold off for pennies: Newton got its armory for $1 after promising to use it for affordable housing – which is what Nolan wants to do here.

The appraisal is higher than some might expect because it followed federal right-of-way standards: Though landlocked, the 30,752 square feet are part of a parcel “that has frontage,” Reardon said. “That makes it a buildable development.”

Factors in a purchase

The armory also is not unused, and National Guard personnel were found onsite Tuesday. Six people are staffed at the armory daily and others rotate in, and it is used for various purposes by the Guard, they said – including as a deployment area for missions, when personnel leave their cars while they are out of state. A significant amount of money was just spent touching up the building, including installing new windows, said the personnel, who had not been cleared in advance to speak on the record.

“A number of years ago we were informed by the armory that they want to actively use that site,” deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said. “And indeed, when we began this negotiation, we were very interested in purchasing the entire site, but they said no, this is a facility that they expect to continue to have or to use.”

Another issue: The armory is built on landfill, and any use the city is interested in would probably demand remediation. “That’s expensive work,” O’Riordan said.

It is the state’s appraisal that would be used in any sale to Cambridge, according to Reardon and a memo from the City Manager’s Office. First the proposed act will be sent to the city’s delegation on Beacon Hill, which will present it to the Legislature for approval. “If the legislation and independent appraisal are approved, then I will bring the proposal before the City Council to approve the purchase under the terms offered by the commonwealth,” says the memo from City Manager Yi-an Huang.

“We have to grab this”

Though councillor Dennis Carlone was undaunted by the limitations and challenges – “They’re not making land anymore,” he said. “We have to grab this” – Paul Toner and Marc McGovern had reservations about what use would follow an acquisition. “I wouldn’t want to necessarily spend $5 million just for a buffer piece that doesn’t really fit into an overall plan,” Toner said.

The use of the land as a buffer between a play area and parking lot also didn’t impress McGovern. “But if it is additional green space or we can use it for something that’s going to benefit the school and the community. I would love to have the whole thing,” he said. “Let’s keep knocking on that door.”

This is the second recent price estimate that has surprised some councillors. In May, the city presented the eminent domain purchase of 0.8 acres between Inman and Union squares for $14.4 million. It was proposed for use by Public Works, while some councillors wanted it to become affordable housing.

A closed-door session was held Monday during the council meeting to discuss “the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property,” but the property remained unidentified Tuesday.