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State, City Look To Redevelop MassDOT Site At Edge Of Chinatown

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Plans are afoot to develop a MassDOT site near Chinatown.

Planning to move state highway offices from their perch above Boston's Big Dig, city and state officials want to develop a large area at the edge of Chinatown, they announced Tuesday.

The move is a high-profile example of an effort Gov. Charlie Baker hopes to spur around the state, converting state-owned land into housing and economic development opportunities. The buildings sit on 5.5 acres at 185 Kneeland Street, and officials say it offers the potential for up to 1.5 to 2 million square feet of redevelopment.

The space overlooking Interstate 93 houses the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's District Six highway offices as well as a Veolia North America steam plant. The plant will remain, while officials will need to find a new spot with highway access for the transportation offices, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

A public input session is planned at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 in the 1st Floor Conference Room at 185 Kneeland Street.

Pollack said neighborhood meetings will shape development of bid documents, and officials are "very committed" to including housing in what could be a mixed-use development.

"There's a lot of potential in this area to bring housing opportunities, economic, closer to transit," said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, touting his administration's plans for 53,000 new units of housing built in the city over the next 15 years.

Department of Neighborhood Development Chief Sheila Dillon said 30,000 units are somewhere in the pipeline and the city's competitive, expensive housing market is "starting to see some relief."

"There are a lot of things you can do with 2 million square feet, some of which will include an affordable housing piece," Baker said. He also said, "The land won't be what it would normally be under a traditional buy."

According to Boston assessing records, the two parcels owned by the state and Veolia are worth a total of about $30.3 million.

Development of the lucrative site walking distance to South Station, Chinatown, the Leather District and Ink Block is of a piece with Baker's goal of converting more modest lots - that he has described as trash strewn and neglected - into development opportunities.

"There are a bunch of those in the city of Boston and truthfully it makes me crazy when I look out and see those parcels that could be adding so much to their community and aren't doing anything," said Baker.

The governor recalled visits with Chrystal Kornegay, now the undersecretary of Housing and Community Development, at Urban Edge in Roxbury. Noticing a trash-filled lot near the office, Baker asked Kornegay "'What's the deal with this one?' and she said, 'That's a state-owned parcel. It's looked like that for as long as I can remember. Nobody's ever done anything with it.'"

The steam plant produces heat touching 40 million square feet of property in downtown Boston, said Bill DiCroce, a top executive at Veolia North America. Pollack said technology now enables the steam plant to operate in the basement of a building.

Pollack said in addition to relocating the Boston area highway office, the administration is considering relocating a backup highway facility in South Boston, and proceeds from the real estate deal would be used for the relocation. She said, "The first level question is repayment of any obligations we would have to Federal Highway" stemming from the Big Dig.

The transportation building houses workers who maintain the metropolitan highways and its origins trace back to the massive highway tunneling project called the Big Dig, Pollack said.

"This is actually the last piece of the Central Artery project," Pollack said.

The parcel that hosts the state transportation offices has long been the subject of speculation over a potential sale, including as part of the state's deliberations over financing the Big Dig.

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