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Building a billion dollar empire at Alewife

Massachusetts Forest Goes On the Chopping Block
by Ben Proffer · May 14, 2011

photo of silver mapleEven as record flooding threatens much of the South, Cambridge and nearby Belmont in Massachusetts have chosen to build an apartment complex on what is now a wetland. Another name for the area is the Alewife Reservation, home to a silver maple forest that would serve as a natural buffer to rains that could threaten the entire Boston area. If the trees go, the water has no place else to flow but into the very developments positioned as 'affordable housing.' That's how the development slipped past the environmental safeguards, by being zoned for the have-nots.

To preserve it for everyone, Belmont and the city of Boston are hoping to buy the land back from the developer, O'Neill Property Group; but its value has skyrocketed since it was sold over ten years ago. It's a tangled problem, really. The property is valuable to O'Neill only if it is razed, and only to the people struggling to save the forest if it remains intact. Essentially O'Neill Property Group can hold the property hostage for as much as it likes, unless the city retracts the building permit to save the forest and brings in assessors to apraise the land and buy it back again.

This is exactly what this petition by the Friends of Alewife Reservation is attempting. Please sign it to keep an urban water safeguard, and all that flies, crawls, or swims in it, from disappearing beneath a tide of irresponsible development.

The double dealing just keeps getting more and more convoluted in nearby Cambridge. There, much of the land (which is nearly indistinguishable from the land in Belmont) has over the past 12 years been parceled and sold a number of times. In 1999 alone it was sold six times, to the appreciation of the property value; which is not necessarily unusual. Land is sold and appreciates or depreciates all the time. What is unusual is that all the companies that are buying and selling this land belong to one man, J. Brian O'Neill.

As previously reported, this real estate tycoon is not known for his good business stewardship. A local resident who was present last month for a forum of experts on the developing situation at Alewife, Annie Thompson, provided me with the records of all of these transactions, which are buried in public record. Her personal theory on the aim of all these sales is to create a smokescreen for J. Brian O'Neill. They were not bought or sold under O'Neill Property Group, but a few alias companies called A.P. Cambridge Partners and A.P. Cambridge Partners II. It is unclear whether or not J. Brian O'Neill is keeping his name at a distance from these transactions to protect himself or the development's reputation.

Thompson is actually a resident of Cambridge (with three graduate degrees from MIT), but has a stake in what happens in Belmont-- as does the entire Boston area. It all comes down to water. The only way the building permit for Belmont could have been approved was by granting access to Cambridge's water treatment infrastructure. As such, they have set up a storage tank for run-off from the planned development that holds 24 hours worth of run-off; however, according to Thompson, Cambridge's water treatment and management capacity is already maxed out.

She lives along a little brook that was recently granted stimulus funds for a bike path. She has an eight-year-old that likes to play alongside it. When the water treatment and storage capacity is maxed out, she says that's where it's released. Unlikely, really, these days. When was the last time it rained for more than 24 hours? In Boston?

The land in Cambridge is actually more strictly regulated than that in Alewife, as it is a designated "floodway" as opposed to "flood zone." This means that any development on the land cannot raise the water level by even one-millionth of an inch, a very hard criteria to meet. What the city and the entire process has failed to actively understand is that development in Alewife will have that exact affect.

Please, save the forest; keep Boston dry; sign the petition, and spread the word.

Photo Credit: renee_mcgurk

Ben Proffer is an environment writer and has written for Sherman’s Travel and New York magazines.