Following a 12-month investigation, the city of San Francisco has billed the Southern Pacific Transportation Company $17,425.57 in unpaid taxes on a vacant parcel of land between 22nd Street and Treat Avenue that was once part of its railroad right-of-way through the Mission.

And yet, Southern Pacific doesn’t exist. And hasn’t for quite some time.

The company halted all freight service on the line in 1991 and was purchased and merged with Union Pacific five years later.

Hannah Bolte, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said Southern Pacific has “no people, no offices, no property.”

She declined to comment on whether Union Pacific would pay the back taxes on the land, known as “Lot 36.”

“If San Francisco were to send a bill to Southern Pacific Transportation Company, we can’t definitively say where it would be delivered or if we’d ever be on the receiving end of it,” Bolte said.

Union Pacific has consistently denied owning the property.

Whoever does could be in for quite the windfall: The assessed value of Lot 36 is $277,948, which dwarfs the back taxes. But that assessment is just a fraction of its current market value, conservatively estimated to be worth at least $5 million by Michael Barnacle, a managing broker at Zephyr Real Estate.

He said the 23,522-square-foot parcel could be worth as much as $10 million, depending on the developer and the circumstances under which development commences.

“Parcel 36.” Photo by Elizabeth Creely.

The Mission Greenway, an organization of the parcel’s neighbors, are hoping that development is minimal.

Other vacant parcels in the Mission have sold for hefty sums. Recently, Lucca Ravioli Company sold its 4,132-square-foot parking lot for $3.2 million dollars.

If the current tax bill remains unpaid for five years, the parcel could be auctioned for non-payment of back taxes after July 1, 2024, according to Amanda Fried, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector.

The yearlong investigation has deepened rather than resolved the mystery of just who owns this parcel.

It’s far from clear that an actual owner has been found. The “assessee,” Southern Pacific, is not necessarily the owner of the parcel, according to Nicole Agbayani, Director of Community Affairs for Assessor Carmen Chu.

“The term ‘assessee’ is not the same as the owner. They might own, claim, possess or control the property. The assessee doesn’t necessarily have the right to sell the property. There’s some confusion around that,” Agbayani said, noting that the assessor’s office wouldn’t be responsible for determining the owner, either.

“That’s a question for a land-use lawyer,” Agbayani said.

Any land-use lawyer who takes on untangling the history of ownership of the parcel will have their work cut out for them. No city official will go on record to discuss the numerous legal actions between the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, whose assets are now owned by Union Pacific, and nearby property owners.

The Assessor’s office won’t describe which documents or individuals were consulted by the city in its  investigation. The decision to not disclose the methods it used to identify Southern Pacific was upheld by the City Attorney’s office.

Rusting tracks reveal the past lives of Parcel 36. Photo by Elizabeth Creely.

The move to keep confidential the discovery process rankled the members of the Mission Greenway group, who have been waiting for a year for an update.

During the period when the first round of tax bills was prepared, Greenway member Daniel Matarozzi asked for updates of the investigation from the Assessor’s office, but was told that assessee had not yet been identified. Later, he filed requests for information citing the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, but they were refused.

Matarozzi is angered by the lack of disclosure that has shrouded the process and prevented the Mission Greenway group from getting answers.

“What in hell is the Assessor’s office doing by pretending they didn’t know who the real owner is?” said Matarozzi.

Tree Rubenstein, who has tried to identify the owner of the parcel since the 1980s, is dismayed by the lack of disclosure and confused by the Assessor’s decision.

“I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of outcomes of our work on this matter,” said Rubenstein. “I was hoping for the least as to having some clarity on who owns the land and how we can move forward as a neighborhood group. Unfortunately, we seem to be in the same place we were a year ago.”

A railway switch protrudes from Parcel 36. Photo by Elizabeth Creely.

Both Matarozzi and Rubenstein faulted not only the Assessor’s office but Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office as well.

“She needs to do something,” said Daniel Matarozzi. “We’ve been waiting and asking for months whether or not there would be a way to transfer the land to public use. It’s a logical locale — it’s adjacent to Parque Nino Unidos and would make a continuous greenway that the neighborhood needs.”

Ronen sounded a note of support for neighborhood efforts to determine the future of Lot 36.

“This oddly-shaped parcel is a rare bit of undeveloped space in the Mission,” Ronan said in a prepared statement. “I appreciate that there are community folks who want to see it preserved as public open space. Once the Assessor completes its task of untangling the complex ownership history, I would love to see if there’s a way we can work together to make the community’s wish come true.”

Currently, the parcel’s future is in a stalemate: To date, none of the tax bills have been paid. It can’t be sold at public auction until five years have elapsed. In the meantime, the Mission Greenway group is determined to resolve the mystery. They’re seeking a land-use lawyer to end the uncertainty over the parcel’s past and uncertain future.

“This whole situation has been very confusing and mysterious,’ group member Carol Scott said. “It has been disappointing how hard it has been to get answers about this forgotten piece of land.”