GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 9, 2013

Mayor: I-4, C-2 deal part of 'big picture'

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Tuesday that her decision to consider selling the I-4, C-2 lot at 65 Rogers St. is a step toward redefining the local economy in a push to focus on marine science research and technology.

Placing the city-owned property for sale, one of the options in the city’s new request for proposals (RFP) for the site, would create an opportunity to draw in thriving marine research and technology businesses that would then attract more similar enterprises, Kirk said.

”This property, along with the Birdseye property, are the two opportunities that act as catalysts for change agents to further the local economy,” Kirk said.

Critics of the sale option, and some supporters too, have fretted that the minimum sale bid of $681,400, would leave Gloucester on the losing end of a sale deal, saying the price is too low. Others said Tuesday they would be hesitant to let go of the city-owned land.

But Kirk said the minimum buying bid, based on the current assessed value of the land, is simply the lowest possible acceptable offer, and the city would likely negotiate a buyer up to a higher price.

”Our goal was to have a number that we could justify so we used the assessed value knowing that we could go up from that number through negotiations,” Kirk said.

Kirk called it too early for the city to speculate on whether a sale would allow the city to recoup the $1.5 million in city and state funds spent on buying the lot in 2010. The lot has remained vacant since that purchase, with the city’s previous Request for Proposals drawing no applicants. Any development on the lot would have to include 50 percent of the property having a water-dependent use because the lot is encompassed by the state’s Designated Port Area (DPA) and the development strings attached to it.

In a December council vote on removing the I-4 C-2 lot from the DPA, Councilor Bruce Tobey was alone in voting to try to lift the parcel from the designation and its restrictions. According to the mayor, Tobey’s push, along with responses from about 10 people who picked up the last Request for Proposal but never returned applications, inspired the decision to allow sale of the lot.

“We’re in a very difficult bind here, and there’s no harm in trying again, but my expectations aren’t high,” Tobey said. “It can’t make anything worse.”

Still, the situation is complicated by plans to continue allowing the Waterways Board jurisdiction over the waterfront sliver of land at the head of the I-4, C-2 lot. Without access to the waterfront piece, the I-4, C-2 lot is essentially a land-locked property.

Included in the Request for Proposals is a formal comment from the Waterways Board. It states that the board plans to continue using the waterfront property, where it has created docking area for 12 vessels, but is open to making adjustments in order to share the waterfront portion with a new I-4, C-2 lot owner.

Waterways Board Chairman Tony Gross said relocating the permitted vessels on the property’s docks would not pan out. But he said a plan like the board’s easements agreed upon with the former I-4, C-2 lot owner would allow the board to shift permitted boats around, opening up space for the new buyer’s water use.

“If it really mirrors the way it was before, then there’s no problem I guess,” Gross said. “I just don’t know how attractive that makes it to the buyer.”

The request for proposals specifies that a buyer would have 180 days to speak with the Waterways Board and settle on a way to share the water access, according to Harbor Planning Director Sarah Garcia.

“It lets them figure out if there’s some kind of arrangement that will work for them and the board as well, and I think that’s a key part,” Garcia said.

Kirk said the chance to draw in a developer that would work with the city, conform to the regulations of a port area and would also expand Gloucester’s marine science research and technology base, might be worth selling at a loss.

”With I-4, C-2m we have the opportunity within the DPA to attract an anchor developer that represents marine science and technology,” the mayor said. “And just getting that on the ground there is worth every penny.

While Kirk said Gloucester will not “shut the door on anyone,” applications will be reviewed with specific and stringent criteria in mind. And, applicants would need to prove complete readiness, financially and planning-wise, to build and develop their plans. Among other criteria, developers would need to obtain all necessary permits, and provide evidence of all construction contracts before the city would sell the property.

”We don’t want someone to buy the property and let it sit for 25 years, which is what happened before, so we have a series of milestones that have to be met,” Kirk said.

Though the detailed development provisions comfort most who favor the land’s port area designation, continuing that land’s use as a Designated Port Area land is not the sole concern for some when considering how best to foster Gloucester’s development.

Damon Cummings, former longtime harbor planning committee member and Gloucester harbor activist, said he is wary of the idea of a sale limiting the city’s opportunities for state funding and development plans.

”I’m very nervous about losing public ownership of the lot because we own so little,” Cummings said. “My first reaction to the whole idea of selling it is, my God we finally own some (waterfront property)— for heaven’s sake keep it so it’s eligible for funding for things the city wants to do.”

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.