A threat of seizing Vail Court by eminent domain drew out an owner’s lawyer, and an explanation for why the 24-unit apartment complex has sat, boarded up and deteriorating, for around a decade: a lawsuit.
“There’s a slow pace over there at redeveloping the property which is frustrating to my client and I’m sure to others,” acknowledged John Maciolek, a Worcester lawyer representing Mohammed Abu-Zahra for Six-S Realty Trust, which was formed of Abu-Zahra and his five brothers.
“There’s currently litigation pending against Mr. Abu-Zahra and the trust from a third party that alleges among other things a breach of contract,” Maciolek said. “It’s possible the court would order Mr. Abu-Zahra and his real estate trust to transfer to the litigant” – in which case starting development of the 28,176-square-foot site on Bishop Allen Drive, just a block from Central Square, would lose his client money.
City councillor Nadeem Mazen said Monday that he’s been talking with Abu-Zahra since he took office in January, and could offer impatient city officials and residents hope the site would be redeveloped whether the trust kept it or was forced to turn it over, and that the City Manager’s Office was involved in discussions as well.
But Mazen wasn’t the author of the Monday policy order calling for a look at taking the property. That was E. Denise Simmons, who was not willing to withdraw the order, but did agree to send it to the council’s Housing Committee while talks went on.
“People want to see something done, and the sooner the better,” Simmons said, referring to an order that noted “the need for more affordable housing, more parking space, more space for community-based organizations, and so forth, and locating any of these concepts on the Vail Court property, right in the heart of Central Square, would be far preferable to the notion of this lot remaining vacant and unused.”
Mayor David Maher agreed, saying allowing Vail Court to sit derelict for so long was “shameful.”
Vail Court, owned by the six brothers but managed by their sister Samira Jallad, was slated in 2005 to go condo, and the trust was allowing the units to empty out in then anticipation of tear-down and reconstruction. But the plans, greeted warmly by the Planning Board, were never put into place, and over the next few years the space continued to be used mainly as a parking lot. In 2009 the License Commission drew Jallad into a series of hearings over whether the parking use was allowed by city law.
The site has been languishing so long that it became an art project by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student named Denise Cheng, who invited neighbors and passers-by to fill out cards imagining what Vail Court could be. More than 50 people filled out cards.
The site is assessed at $1.6 million, nearly all of which is land value; at the previous assessment it was deemed worth $2 million. In the Central Square market, of course, the sale value of the land would be millions higher.
Abu-Zahra would be meeting with City Manager Richard C. Rossi or his staff within the next month, Mazen said, and a resolution could come within months. He welcomed Simmons’ order “for the pressure it adds” for litigation to be settled before the city can seize the property and make losers of both sides in the case. The other side in the case is identified as Abeer Inc.
Maciolek said it was understood “that there can be frustration looking at a building in such prime location that is vacant.”
“He is making reasonable efforts to redevelop that property,” the lawyer said, referring to Abu-Zahra, “and for those reasons is very much against the policy order.”
Update on May 27, 2014: Court records show the defendant in Abeer Inc. v. Six S Realty Trust didn’t appear for a 2 p.m. Tuesday hearing.
John Hawkinson contributed to this report.