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A once-busy rail yard in East Cambridge lies largely desolate. Use it for transportation? Or development?

A hundred years ago, there was a huge bustling railroad yard in the area of Somerville, East Cambridge and Charlestown covering hundred of acres. It was separate from the residential and industrial areas we know as East Cambridge and was the sole land use in the extreme northeast corner of Cambridge. Then, as now, it was seen as separate from East Cambridge.

Today the active rail yard is almost all gone. The tracks for hundreds of box cars and later truck piggyback operations have been removed. Cambridge planners now call this area "North Point."

The rail yard may have been separate from East Cambridge, but it connected to so many other things. It bridged the Charles River into North Station. It extended into Somerville's Assembly Square and near Union Square. Tracks from the yard connected to Portland Maine, to Lowell and New Hampshire ... and to the Hoosac tunnel and points west through New York to Chicago. It connected to the Grand Junction tracks through Cambridgeport and into Allston. Beyond lay tracks of the New York Central Railroad to Worcester and beyond.

Almost the entire area between O'Brien Highway in Cambridge to Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown was a mass of railroad tracks and switches, of round-houses and marshaling yards, steam locomotives puffing away, railroad box cars lined up everywhere.

A hundred years ago, moving freight could mean moving by barge or horse and wagon -- but most of the time it would mean sending things by rail. The vast Cambridge-Somerville rail yard was operated by the powerful Boston and Maine Railroad, run by a man named Charles Mellen, who turned out to be a stooge for financier J. P. Morgan. Morgan owned the New Haven railroad coming up from New York City.

Morgan saw a great future for rail and other related industries. He also owned the Boston Elevated Company, which ran the trains on Boston's rapid transit system. He owned the West End Street Railway company, which operated the area trolley-cars. He owned U.S. Steel, having bought it from Andrew Carnegie. He owned the White Star Lines, a prestigious flotilla of ocean liners, one of which was called the Titanic. The only thing Morgan missed was the advent of the automobile and the modern highway.

Today, in the 21st century, the rail yards are a mere shell of what they used to be. Some rail activity remains : MBTA commuter rail service to North Station and Orange Line trains to Malden. The B&M went through hard times and bankruptcies and today is nothing more than a real estate holding company. The minimalist freight rail services to the area are provided by an obscure entity called Pan Am Railways. Of the massive rail yard of 1915, there are only two small brick buildings that have survived into 2015. It is an extraordinary lesson in city death ... and life.

The rebirth of North Point can be seen as a new land development area, or as a partial addition to the region's transportation structure. Modern North Point has become a battleground over using the area for buildings or for transportation.

News reports tell of the alliance between two former governors -- Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld -- supporting a proposal to connect South Station and North Station with an underground rail tunnel. This plan has existed in some form since the 1840s, but the biggest splash occurred in 1909, at the same time the North Point rail yards were booming. Boston civic leaders (together with J.P.Morgan) proposed to electrify passenger rail service and build a four track tunnel from the south side of the city to the north side. It would also allow for freight service at night, connecting into the five-track Grand Junction rail corridor and a loop track through Boston, called the "Inner Belt." Yes, the Inner Belt expressway of the 1960s began life as a proposed corridor for railroad tracks.

By 1917, the plans for the tunnel were fully designed, but the first World War and rail bankruptcies intervened. Another effort was made in 1937, with a four-track open cut corridor using stream trains through downtown Boston. That plan was defeated by the powerful cab companies, who wanted to retain the lucrative trade of shuttling passengers from between North and South stations.

In more recent years, one of those passengers making the shuttle move between the two stations was a young student from Long Island, coming up by train to attend private school in Concord. His name was Bill Weld.

The North-South rail link idea was revived in 1972, when the idea for depressing the Central Artery was first proposed. The tunnel for the highway would have had room for two rail tracks in the median. The combined rail link and Central Artery tunnel idea was continued through the 1970s. The train tracks were snuffed out by the Reagan Administration, who wanted more highway lanes as part of the Big Dig project. The rail link dropped into the shadows until the early 1990s.

Today, a few people remember the controversy over the Scheme Z highway spaghetti bowl in 1989-1990. Highway critics revived the idea of the rail link, but state officials belittled it as physically impossible. By 1993 a Rail Link Task Force was created by Governor Bill Weld, and the new plan looked at ways to build a rail tunnel -- underneath the new Big Dig highway tunnel. Highway officials had never thought of the concept.

After Bill Weld left the Governor's office, the pressure for a rail link slowly declined in the late 1990s. For the first decade and a half of the new century, little was said about the rail link until Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld began to publicize their plan to make the connection.

This year's announcements followed a quiet two-year effort to revive the rail link plan. The idea was to have the rail tunnel come up to grade, with portals in the North Point area connecting to existing surface level tracks. A plan to use parts of North Point for construction staging was also part of the proposal. The planning effort included people associated with the 1993 Task Force work.

Mike Dukakis has been spear-heading the most recent efforts to make the rail link a reality .... more than 100 years after the original 1909 proposals. He remains vigorous and determined : a credible force in rail transportation because of his long service on the Amtrak Board and his reputation as the last Governor who liked transit, rode transit, and wanted to make it work. The shambles of the MBTA last winter almost made old-timers hope that Mike Dukakis would come back to straighten the whole thing out. He is the only politician with true transit credibility.

On the development front, North Point has been in the news recently with reports that the land has been sold. The developer HYM together with investor Canyon-Johnson sought bids to buy the North Point site and has agreed with sell to a San Francisco company DivcoWest for a price of $291 million. Development at North Point has lagged behind other areas of the city such as Kendall and Alewife, and the site is notable as the largest undeveloped area in the Cambridge-Boston area.

However, there is a reason for the lack of progress. Since 2002, only three buildings have been added to the 45-acre site, and HYM has decided to cash in on the property rather than shoulder the burden of carrying the master plan to completion.

The primary difficulties with developing North Point come from its history as railroad land built on tidelands. Railroad documentation of land ownership is notoriously lax, and the fact that North Point is filled tidelands created a bureaucratic swamp. The task comes down to finding proof that the B&M railroad legally filled tidelands and properly acquired fee title to ownership of the land parcels.

North Point has a vivid legal history, resulting from the court challenges mounted by a citizen group, the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods and its President, John Moot. The case of Moot v. DEP came before the state Supreme Judicial Court twice, in 2007 and 2010.

One issue remains unresolved -- who owns thirteen acres of Commonwealth tidelands at North Point? This land area is the original low-tide channel of the Millers River, which by law is owned by the state.

The only way to buy land from the state is to get a bill passed by the state Legislature. If the developer team cannot show that they have purchased the thirteen acres from the state, then the state still owns the land. In its filings with the Planning Board, the developers never cited any legislation to acquire state land and never claimed that they owned any part of Commonwealth tidelands at North Point.

The developers never challenged the deposition filed by ACN on state ownership of the thirteen acres. In 2005 the Middlesex District Court decision identified the site as containing 13 acres of Commonwealth Tidelands, and the decision still stands.

One final complication is that no one really knows where the boundary line is between Cambridge and Somerville through the North Point site. The line has never been surveyed, and originally was defined as the centerline of the old Millers River -- which has been entirely filled in through North Point. Good question : when is a parcel or proposed building in Cambridge or in Somerville? No one really knows.

North Point is unlikely to be an easy site for DivcoWest to develop. The problems with transportation, tidelands, land ownership, and city boundary are formidable. The challenges are not unsolvable, but to date no one has really tried to solve them.



One correction Steve. HYM did not cash in. They still own the 20% stake that they did when partnering with Canyon-Johnson. Canyon-Johnson sold its shares to Divco West. They recently amended their Special Permit from the Planning Board to accelerate the schedule of building near what will become the new Lechmere Station. Their retail plaza and more housing will will be built to become open around the time of the new MBTA station's opening. The recent amendment received the support of the East Cambridge Planning Team.