Mystic River Cities

The Mystic River cities line the rim of the river’s basin.  They were built out at the end of the era when deepwater access for shipping still mattered.  They were built out for industry.  Most of that industry has gone away, and, where the Mystic River cities thrive today, it is on modern-era profit centers.  Chelsea, Everett, East Boston, and the east sides of Somerville and Medford.  And south Malden.  They are all one place, bound by common interests.  If this place had a name, it would be Mystic.

A first impression of the Mystic cities is of low income, dense housing, and bygone industry.  The impression is unnecessarily negative and only half accurate.  “Dense” is no longer a bad word for urban planners.  Density prevents the sprawl that eats up open space.  It puts workers near workplaces and reduces commutes.  Density is green.  The Mystic cities’ dense housing is home to communities that may be low-income but that offer a rich mix of first-generation immigrant cultures.  And the bygone industry provides large sites for re-use with new and profitable development.

Logan Airport is the source of much of the new life of Mystic.  The airport only partially serves its own needs on-site.  It spins off demand for a variety of support facilities.  Cut-rate hotels have gone up on main arteries in East Boston, Chelsea, and Somerville.  Rental car and park-and-fly lots take up large sites in East Boston and Chelsea.  Air freight handlers occupy much of the modern industrial space near the airport.  Air freight handlers need one-story buildings with long rows of tailgate loading doors.  The air freight industry is vulnerable to spikes in fuel prices, as occurred in 2008.  But rents and prices for air freight space historically have stood at the peak of rates for industrial space anywhere in Greater Boston.

The New England Produce Center and the satellite buildings that surround it are west of the air freight district, on the Chelsea/Everett line.  While the rest of Boston sleeps, the produce district comes alive, with three a.m. pickups of the fruit and vegetables that go on display in Greater Boston’s food stores later in the day.  Some of the produce center’s facilities are state-of-the-art, with temperature controls and remote monitoring that allow operators to bring produce to ripeness on a schedule that matches stores’ demand.  The Everett tank farms stretch west from the produce center along the Mystic River to Route 99. 

This part of the industrial district operates under a looser set of rules than do suburban industrial parks.  It is built on man-made land that was created long before the laws that forbid the filling of marshes came into being.  Some of the fill consists of contaminants like coal tar, which to this day sometimes seeps to the surface.  The industrial district has no vegetation.  Everything is paved.  Roads have no curbs, and streets blend into parking lots. Some of the businesses here operate out of trailers.  The King Arthur Motel, scene of fatal shootings, occupies a prime corner. The apparent lack of rules would be seen in the suburbs as an impediment to high-value development.  Here, to judge by the usual real estate benchmarks of vacancy rate, rent rate, and price, it seems to allow many businesses to thrive. 

Commercial appraisers valuing property in the Mystic River cities need an awareness of the special market forces at work here more than at other locations.  The seemingly derelict state of some properties can mask substantial value.  Land prices of $30 per foot are common in the industrial district.  Land prices can range as high as $75 per foot or more for fast food and branch bank sites with good traffic exposure.  Contamination and the status of soils are issues for a large proportion of the district’s properties.  Appraisers typically value property as if “clean.”  But an awareness of contamination and of the costs of any required cleanup can be important to an understanding of comparable sales. 

Office demand in Mystic is weak.  Good-quality office buildings in Chelsea, East Somerville, and Malden earn a level of rent that is at the low end of the suburban scale.  The Mystic River cities are without a major mall.  Assembly Square in Somerville is one that failed.  Shopping is more small-scale and less franchise-dominated than at more affluent locations.  The Mystic cities make their living primarily from industry. 

Apart from industry, the Mystic River cities present some of the area’s best development opportunities.  Large, old industrial sites that are visible from major roads provide good locations for new, “big box” retail.  Large sites with water views are good locations for multi-family development.  A riverfront site near Assembly Square in Somerville, formerly the home of the H.K. Porter plant and others, is scheduled for redevelopment with high-density housing, shops, and an Ikea store.  New development at Wellington, at an Orange Line stop of the T, is just across the river.  One of the prime opportunities for retail development is the stretch of Mystic Avenue that abuts Route I-93 in Medford.  With access at a highway interchange at one end and with exposure to 175,000 cars per day, its retail outlets tap only a fraction of its potential.  Suffolk Downs in East Boston has the inside track for licensing as Greater Boston’s only urban casino. 

In a way that it didn’t in 1973, when the Great Chelsea Fire leveled 18 industrial blocks, the Mystic River cities have a future.  The American manufacturing sector has been in long, slow decline for more than a half century.  It took the Mystic River cities with it.  Their future is in other things.  It is in an airport, in a produce center, in a highway, and in the opportunities that come from abundant big sites by the side of the river. 



The Reenstierna Associates Report is published as a service to the clients of Eric Reenstierna Associates and other real estate professionals. The views expressed are those of the articles' authors and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the organization. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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