Boston garage sale stirs worries

Questions raised over the BRA's involvement

THE CITY OF Boston used to sell off rundown municipal garages for development all the time by itself, but it’s taking a different tack with the old Winthrop Square Garage, one of the city’s most coveted parcels of land in the heart of the Financial District.

Mayor Marty Walsh wants to transfer the property to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which would then sell it and remit any proceeds, minus expenses, to the city. The BRA is a quasi-public agency that is a separate legal entity from the city, but controlled by Walsh through his appointment of the director and four of the five members of the board.

Brian Golden, the director of the BRA, says his agency’s involvement makes sense because it is more attuned to the real estate process. “I think, generally speaking, there’s greater comfort with the BRA having sort of comprehensive control of the site,” he says.  Pressed to be more specific, Golden says the BRA could more easily clear the title.

Sam Tyler, the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-backed watchdog group that monitors city finances, doesn’t see the need for the BRA to take ownership of the Winthrop Square Garage. “We believe that the city should retain ownership of the property and the BRA should serve as disposition agent to manage the development process,” he says.

Tyler says he never received a “good solid explanation” as to why the city can’t sell the property itself with help from the BRA. He says that’s what happened when the city sold municipal garages at 75 State Street, 500 Boylston Street, and International Place.

A veteran title examiner, who does not want to be identified, calls the issue of title clearance a “red herring.”  “It’s a bunch of bull crap,” she says.  “It would be no big deal to do a title search for the garage property.”

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson is opposed to transferring the Winthrop Square property to the BRA.  “The city of Boston is perfectly capable of marketing and selling its own property,” he says.  “That way all of the proceeds, not just the so-called net proceeds, would go to the people of the city.  I also don’t like turning the property over to the BRA because it is an agency run by people who are not elected and accountable to the people.”

Katherine Craven, who is the head of the Public Facilities Commission, the city entity that would be responsible for conveying the garage to the BRA, stays out of the debate. “I don’t have an opinion,” she says.  “I see our role as procedural and rely on others to do the due diligence.”

Several other city officials did not want to discuss the BRA’s role. A Walsh spokeswoman wouldn’t let David Sweeney, the city’s chief financial officer, comment about the BRA other than to say the city will remain heavily involved in the disposition of the garage.

“The city will retain a very large amount of control over what happens to the property,” he says.  Sweeney also notes that the city has hired the firm of Ernst & Young to help in analyzing the developer proposals for the project.

City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who chaired the council committee reviewing a memorandum of agreement on the Winthrop Square Garage parcel between the BRA and the city, declined, through a spokeswoman, a request for an interview. Councilor Bill Linehan, whose district contains the Winthrop Square Garage and who supports the transfer, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Long-time BRA critic Shirley Kressel, who has argued through the years that the BRA ignores and circumvents laws, calls attention to what she calls “huge loopholes” in the memorandum of agreement that gives the net proceeds to the city.

The agreement provides a laundry list of expenses that the BRA can subtract out to arrive at the net proceeds it must turn over to the city. “That’s where the real damage can be done,” says Kressel. “It’s so open-ended with expressions like ‘including, but no limited to’ and ‘any other necessary costs and expenses.’  It amounts to giving the BRA a blank check.  We may even end up owing the developer money for this deal.”

Kressel also says that many of the expenses enumerated should be paid by the developer and not the city, including environmental remediation, demolition, and site and structure investigation. “Why should the city be stuck with paying these expenses?” she asks.  “Those should come out of the developer’s pocket, not the taxpayers’.”

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So far, the city has been unsuccessful in its efforts to convey ownership of the Winthrop Square Garage to the BRA.  A number of steps are required, including the approval of the City Council.  First time out, that step was left out, voiding the conveyance vote cast by the Public Facilities Commission.  Last December, the council finally voted to approve the transfer to the commission.

But then Kressel alleged that the council’s voting process violated the Open Meeting Law, and filed a complaint with Attorney General Maura Healey, who has yet to render a decision.  Until that complaint is resolved and the council vote validated, the commission cannot convey the property to the BRA.