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Baker Markets State Properties For Housing, Economic Opportunities

Hoping to offload publicly owned real estate to developers, Gov. Charlie Baker emphasized Monday that price isn't necessarily the top consideration as Greater Boston has affordable housing needs and other areas of the state seek economic development.

"The Commonwealth benefits, as a property owner or as a property seller, if a piece of property that's doing nothing starts to do something," Baker told developers, financiers and others gathered at the Transportation Building Monday morning. He said, "Max value to the Commonwealth may be different than just getting the best price you can out of a piece of property."

A roughly 3,000-square-foot parcel in Boston's North End, one acre below Interstate 391 in Chicopee, and 32 acres in the town of Washington, in the Berkshires, are among the more than 40 properties marketed Monday for business opportunities.

Pitching ATM vendors for locations within the MBTA system and available rooftops for telecommunications equipment in Worcester, Westfield and on Beacon Hill, the state highlighted land owned by various agencies as well as cities and towns. The Baker administration said the near-term opportunities were offered up Monday for public-private partnerships.

Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said he is particularly interested in the Mattapan Station parking lot, a 2.7-acre site with 240 parking spaces that is only 20 percent used on a typical weekday, according to the state.

Holmes said more than a year ago the state attempted to give the site to a charter school, but he hopes it could be developed into a mixed-use site similar to the Carruth Building in Dorchester's Ashmont neighborhood, with restaurants and retail on the first floor and a mix of affordable and market-rate residential units in the floors above.

Mike Cantalupa, of Boston Properties, said his company usually learns about opportunities for state-owned properties through public bidding processes, and said Boston Properties has a better awareness of larger lots, while there are "jewels in the rough everywhere."

Cantalupa said the cost of construction has "significantly" increased in the area, which is a factor as developers consider the expense or affordability of residential construction.

In addition to spurring economic development and housing opportunities, the state is hoping to generate some revenue for transportation through the offerings. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the MBTA owns 4,000 pieces of property and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation owns 1,700 pieces of property.

The MBTA is particularly interested in developing surface parking lots for commuter rail stations, or adding a parking garage to accommodate drivers while building something new on the rest of the property.

"That's really smart. It's making use of available real estate," said Cantalupa, who said the "transit-oriented" constructions would be sustainable. A packet handed out at the event showcased commuter rail lot space available in Scituate and Dedham, as well as development of transit lots at Quincy-Adams Station and retail and office leasing at Springfield's Union Station.

Adrienne Benton, president and CEO of Onyx Spectrum Technology, a company that refurbishes electronics for the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force, said she was hoping for more progress integrating her network of black-owned businesses with the "old time networks."

"This is nothing new," Benton told the News Service, referring to the list of properties released on Monday. Benton said she rents privately owned space in Lawrence and might at some point consider acquiring land from the state.

Also in attendance at the business event was Dianne Wilkerson, a former senator. In 2010, Wilkerson pled guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion after federal prosecutors charged her with accepting cash payments to arrange development for a piece of state property in Roxbury, among other official actions.

Wilkerson told the News Service she is not barred from doing business with the state, but is not seeking to do business with the state, and attended the event Monday to encourage economic development opportunities for black businesses.

"It's a passion of mine," Wilkerson said.

Brian Kavoogian, president of Charles River Realty Investors, described Monday's event as a "first pass" and a "renewed effort" for better use of land.

"I didn't come here with anything specific in mind," Kavoogian told the News Service.

Baker said he has seen multiple state-owned lots lying fallow, and said an "outside-in look" would be helpful for the state.

"I've driven by them. I've walked by them. People have showed them to me," Baker told the News Service. The governor told the crowd, "A lot of them are referred to as assets. I don't know how a strip of land that has tall grass, beer cans and a couple of burnt-out automobiles can be called an asset... But they are certainly potentially assets."

Chrystal Kornegay, the undersecretary of Housing and Community Development, said the state will need to determine how to craft government concessions to encourage development that meets the state's priorities.

"There's somewhere between market-price and free that we'll have to figure out," Kornegay said. She was unable to estimate how many deals are likely to spring from the "Open for Business" initiative.

The Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations said the organization and its members "stand ready to partner with the Baker-Polito Administration to transform these under-used public assets into homes and jobs across the Commonwealth."

"We are particularly pleased to see that this proposal emphasizes housing production generally and affordable housing specifically," the group wrote on its website. It said, "This approach requires balancing the need to generate revenue with the need to provide land at a price that allows the creation of affordable housing, without using limited public housing subsidies to pay for public land."

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