Property Rights & The Shame of the Black & Decker building

Sitting at the western gateway to our neighborhood - along Western Ave, Birmingham Parkway, and Waverly Street - is the "Black and Decker / Dewalt" building on 0.35 acres at 8 Waverly St. It is an disgrace and insight into the problems of the commercial real estate market in North Allston and North Brighton.

Yesterday's New York Times includes this story about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and property rights, and the Black & Decker building is an interesting situation to consider the rights of the property owner, the interests of the community, and appropriate use of the power of our government.

Based on the signage on the building I assumed the building was still owned by Black & Decker, but in November 2006 Black & Decker sold the property to Waverly Street Associates LLC, an entity that seems to have been created solely for the purchase of this property, for $1.6 million.

Waverly Street Associates is comprised of a Waltham real estate broker a resident of Encinitas, California. Based on the condition of their property they don't seem inclined to do much of anything with it in the near future.

The City of Boston's Responsibility

The City's first problem is that the property is dramatically under-assessed for real estate tax purposes. The 2009 total assessed value is $332,000 which yields a $9,000 annual tax bill for the owner. The City had the property assessed for the same amount in 2008, just after the property sold for $1.6M - almost 5 times the assessed value! If the City corrected its assessment the owner would pay an extra $36,000 each year, making it much less attractive to let his empty property sit idle. This is yet another example of the City's inequitable taxing system based on inaccurate real estate assessments.

Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development claims to do "an annual survey of buildings in the city that are abandoned", but the most recent data on their website is a 2007 survey that does not include this building.

Our City should be creating a safe and livable community for its residents and taxpayers, and blighted buildings like this clearly detract from both. When faced with a situation like this the City could start with having Inspectional Services issue as many fines as possible to try to get the owner to clean up the property. But if the City has done that it hasn't worked.

The much bigger stick that the City has, and should consider using in situations like this, is taking the property by eminent domain.

History is filled with horrible examples of cities using eminent domain to take homes where people live. The Kelo case from New London, CT received a lot of attention a couple years ago and Boston's history includes the destruction of the West End and Barry's Corner. But there is a big difference between throwing a family on the street and demolishing their home and taking a vacant commercial building that has been neglected for years. I doubt that the person in southern California who owns this building will experience any "personal pain and sorrow" other than the disappointment of not being able to someday sell the property to Harvard for millions more.

In most situations, Justice John Paul Stevens is probably right that “The free play of market forces is more likely to produce acceptable results in the long run than the best-intentioned plans of public officials.” But because of Harvard, North Allston and North Brighton don't enjoy a "free play of market forces".

Everyone knows, or has reason to expect, that Harvard will continue to purchase property along Western Ave to connect its Allston campus (Business School, Athletics, and the Science Complex hole) with its Watertown property (29 acres purchased in 2001 for $162 million). This gives property owners, who in some cases don't seem to care at all about the condition of their property today, motivation to wait until tomorrow (or a decade or two from now) when Harvard may come along and create an enormous payday for them.


  1. Anonymous11:31 AM

    Hmm. I suspect that eminent domain is a stick that the city will refuse to use, as they'll almost certainly get immediately embroiled in legal challenges. It'd be nice if they did, though. One seized building would make everyone else start looking about.

    Certainly ISD citing them would be a less difficult sell for the city, even if somewhat less effective. Of course, ISD is already spread so thin that most of their inspectors only answer the phone for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon...

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