By Karen Klinger
Just as FACES, the long-closed former nightclub and derelict building on the Concord Turnpike is one of the first sites travelers see as they drive into Cambridge along Route 2, another dilapidated structure greets drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians who travel south from Arlington into the city along Massachusetts Avenue. On a lot at the corner of Mass Ave and Magoun Street, (2578 Mass Ave) a former gas station and auto repair shop sits forlornly amid an expanse of pavement and weeds and has for as long as many residents can recall.
North Cantabrigians have frequently complained about it, city councilors have on occasion wondered if anything could be done about it, and in 2008, a city-issued report titled "Massachusetts Avenue Recommendations and Action Plan," which considered ways to improve Cambridge's main thoroughfare, acknowledged that residents thought the gas station "is an eyesore that should be addressed." But a corresponding section labeled "Action and Progress to Date," was not hopeful about anything happening.
"The gas station is privately owned, relatively small, zoned for small-scale uses and potentially has contamination issues that may need to be addressed," it said. "These factors help to inhibit redevelopment on the site."
However, in the past year, the owner of the property has offered a solution: he's willing to sell it, and at the knockdown price of only $1million! A bargain, because when it was initially put up for sale, the price was $1.5 million, so that's a one-third off deal. Who could complain?
Despite the economy being in the worst recession since the Great Depression and the bursting of the real estate (many would say credit) bubble, there still seems to be a belief among some people that owning property in Cambridge, any property, is akin to having a formula for alchemy, turning whatever you have from dirt into gold. This case might test that belief as the owner chases the market. Here's a brief synopsis drawn from the popular real estate website Trulia:
"Development opportunity. 2 former auto garages currently zoned for 2-family house or use as single 4,500 sq. ft. building. City allows 35-ft. ceiling if you add 2nd-floor loft. Use current garage space as garage/storage/basketball/jacuzzi/parking for 10 cars. Currently vacant and ready for developer."
Now the listing history:
- 11/13/2009 Price: $1,500,000
- 1/27/2010 Price: $1,300,000 (down 13.3 percent)
- 2/11/2010 Price: $1,299,000 (down 0.1 percent)
- 4/30/2010 Price: $1,200,000 (down 7.6 percent)
- 6/18/2010 Price: $1,199,000 (down 0.1 percent)
- 7/20/2010 Price: $1,000,000 (down 16.6 percent)
It might seem that the owner is taking quite a hit as the price keeps dropping. But consider: the city's assessed value for this property is $361,200. That includes a valuation of just $14,500 for the buildings and $346,700 for the land. And that's down $1,000 from 2009.True, assessed values usually run below sale/asking prices, but not almost two-thirds below.
And there's this: according to public records, the owner purchased the property in March of 2000 for $233,333. At $1 million, he'd be getting over a 30 percent return on his investment year in and year out for a decade.
There's more, too. Anyone who might have an additional $1.1 million could get a package deal, buying in addition to the garage lot a three-unit property on one side of it and a brown-shingled house on the other side, for a total of $2.1 million.
But getting back to just the gas station property, as the listing indicates, the problem for a developer is that the property is zoned for only a two-story, two unit residence. Anyone who bought it would have to tear down the existing buildings, tear up the pavement, then possibly do some extensive contamination mitigation, and that's just to start, before any actual building could be done. How much would the units have to cost for someone to make any money? It is, of course, possible that there could be a couple of millionaire basketball, loft and jacuzzi-loving families out there with lots of cars who also need a fair amount of storage space and really want to live on Mass Ave close to a Dunkin' Donuts.
But if not, people in North Cambridge may have to resign themselves to continue living with the old gas station just as Route 2 commuters have gotten used to seeing FACES every day (some say they now regard it as a kind of weird Cambridge icon). Which is not to say real estate agents aren't out there trying to sell the property. In addition to the listing on Trulia, there was one on another high-profile real estate website, Redfin. One said, "Bring offers. Priced to sell!!!!! " (Five exclamation points!) And another, "BRING OFFERS--Garage worth 800-950k easy. Bring Offers!!!" (Only three exclamation points, but an all-caps lead-in).
And then there was a description of the property on Craigslist, with the heading "MASTERPIECE 2 lots buildings MIX USE." Masterpiece? Well, if nothing else, it might take using some creative writing to stir up interest in this particular listing (if not necessarily grammar and punctuation).