City negotiates deal on Uphams Corner

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May. 14, 2008

One month after the Reporter detailed the story of Boston's largest property-tax scofflaw in mid-February, the city apparently came to an agreement with the Department of Labor and moved to foreclose on the property. A decision could come any day that would potentially place the property in the hands of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, or assign a real estate agent to sell it post haste.

Hal Cohen, owner of Maxwell Products Corporation and a well-known community activist, owes over $1.6 million in back taxes on the warehouse complex the company owns at 65 East Cottage St. The debt has been accruing off and on since the 1970s.

For years, what would have been a routine tax-taking case was complicated by a growing lien from the Department of Labor (DOL) on the property, now totaling over $790,000. The lien was placed to pay back a pension and profit-sharing fund that Cohen took $1.2 million from when the box-making business he inherited from his father, Maxwell Products, declined in the mid 90s.

If the city had foreclosed earlier, the DOL lien would have been erased and forever unpaid, but land court documents indicate that the city is attempting to negotiate a deal wherein the Boston Redevelopment Authority would pay the DOL what it is owed sometime after the foreclosure. The DOL made a motion to clarify that deal in the city recorder's final judgment, which is currently under advisement. A judgment could come at any time.

The DOL was not opposed to the BRA payback idea, according to DOL spokesperson Ted Fitzgerald, but would also accept a court appointed real estate agent who would sell the property and divide the proceeds to the DOL and the city of Boston.

"Our goal is we want to get the funds back for the plan participants, who have been waiting for some time," Fitzgerald said.

Last year, the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with Cohen to buy the property and develop a mixed-use residential and commercial building, but could not secure a guarantee for tax abatements from the city that they would have needed to make the project financially viable, Dorchester Bay's director Jeanne Dubois told the Reporter months ago.

Cohen referenced the nixed deal in a vehement response to the city's recent attempt to foreclose. In a motion he filed on March 27 against the city's motion for judgment, he wrote: "The city wants the land and wants it on the cheap. They wanted the property for themselves and did not want housing on the property and thus prevented a sale of the property in a transaction which would have satisfied the claims of all Maxwell Products Corporation's creditors."

Cohen has had over a decade to sell the property since he began falling seriously behind on his taxes and it has been seven years since the Department of Labor won the U.S. District Court case against him in June of 2001.

The mayor's press office did not immediately return a call for this article and Cohen refused to comment publicly on the case.

If the city were to successfully foreclose on the building, Cohen would have the right to appeal the decision and also a one-year right of redemption in which he could pay his debt and regain ownership. Thus it may be years before the fate of the building, which sits in a prime location for transit-oriented development next to the Uphams Corner commuter rail stop, is finally resolved.