The Price of Nothing: Examining Boston’s 2018 Vacant Parcels

by Mike Shields


How much does that vacant lot cost? As part of the Boston Area Research Initiative’s (BARI) recent release of the 2018 Geographic Infrastructure for the City of Boston, we examined the makeup of vacant parcels within the city by neighborhood. The City of Boston systematically categorizes parcels using Property Occupancy Codes. These codes distinguish parcels and properties not only by their land use type (e.g. Residential, Commercial, Tax-Exempt, etc.), but also by their building function (e.g. public school, library, single family dwelling, etc.). This allows the city to annually assess the values of properties and appropriately plan and zone for new development. But what about those empty spaces within the city? How many are there, where are they located, and how much do they cost?

We first mapped the full distribution of vacant parcels as part of our “City of Boston 2018 Parcels” layer on our Boston Research Map (along with a few other “special parcels”). We noticed that the city has a very broad categorization for a “vacant” parcel (see Figure 1). For example, Franklin Park, the Fens, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway are all categorized as vacant, along with various piers and highway underpasses. However, their definition also includes the more typical residential and commercial vacant lots scattered throughout most city neighborhoods.


Figure 1: The Distribution of Vacant Parcels Across Boston

Map: Distribution of vacant parcels across Boston


We then used the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s planning districts as a proxy boundary for a neighborhood to show the distribution of vacant parcels across Boston’s neighborhoods (see Table 1). Table 1 shows that the greatest share of vacant parcels can be found in Roxbury (n=1476) followed by West Roxbury (n=959) and South Dorchester (n=928), while the more dense and centralized neighborhoods of Back Bay/Beacon Hill and Fenway/Kenmore have the least (n=43 and n=44 respectively). This is unsurprising considering the greater number of parcels within these larger outer-neighborhoods when compared to the smaller downtown areas.


Table 1: 2018 Vacant Parcels in the City of Boston

Count of vacant parcels in Boston


We then differentiated the parcel’s land use types within each neighborhood to better understand the makeup of these vacant parcels (see Table 2). Unsurprisingly, most neighborhoods’ vacant parcels are zoned as residential plots; this means they are zoned for single family dwellings, multiple family dwellings, apartments, or condominiums. It is only in the Central and Fenway/Kenmore neighborhoods where vacant commercial parcels and vacant tax-exempt parcels outnumber vacant residential ones, and only the South End shows a higher number of vacant tax-exempt to vacant residential parcels.


Table 2: 2018 Vacant Parcels in the City of Boston by Land Use Type

Vacant parcels in Boston by Land Use Type


Finally, we were interested in seeing the difference in value among vacant parcels across neighborhoods. Table 3 shows the value (in dollars per square foot) of vacant parcels by land use type within each neighborhood. We used each parcel’s total assessed value and divided it by the lot size. Surprisingly, vacant residential parcels are valued much higher than their commercial and tax-exempt counterparts (means=$64.62, $18.04, and $17.34 respectively), and outer neighborhoods – like West Roxbury and Mattapan – have higher values than downtown. In fact, the Central neighborhood has the lowest valued vacant residential parcels at $22.96. Vacant commercial parcels have a high range ($31.78) and show higher valued parcels in South Boston, Central, and North Dorchester neighborhoods ($34.11, $31.11, and $30.79 respectively). While South Boston’s Seaport District and Downtown’s Financial Center help explain these high values, a conclusive case for North Dorchester remains undetermined. Surprisingly, vacant commercial parcels in the Back Bay/Beacon Hill are valued the lowest at $2.33; this is odd considering this neighborhood’s concentration of businesses and proximity to downtown. Finally, vacant tax-exempt parcels had the highest range ($56.63) and follow a more predictable pattern of higher values correlating with proximity to downtown.


Table 3: Value (in $ per SqFt) of Vacant Parcels by Land Use Type

Value ($/square ft) of vacant parcels by land use type


To better visualize these differences, we created a new layer entitled “Vacant Parcel Values” on our Boston Research Map (see Figure 2). After turning the layer on, right click the title and click the “Styles” option. A small window with a pull-down bar will appear. Use this layer to see how the City of Boston values different vacant lots.


Figure 2: Visualizing Vacant Parcels Value in Boston

Visualizing vacant parcels value in Boston



Published On: November 9, 2018 |
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