Councillors vent anger over Vail Court, but owners get week of breathing time
Long-simmering anger at the owners of the decrepit Vail Court apartments boiled over Monday at a meeting where city councillors moved to shut down a commercial parking lot they called likely illegal and potentially dangerous.
They also tried to set a 30-day deadline for the owners to state long-term plans for the 24-unit,0.65-acre property at 139 Bishop Allen Drive, only a block from Massachusetts Avenue and the heart of Central Square, in a second amendment to a main order that called for the city to start fining the owners for failing to clean it and keep it from being a nuisance to neighbors. The apartments have been empty for more than a decade.
After the two amendments passed, though, councillor Nadeem Mazen used his “charter right” to set aside the issue for one meeting – unless weather interferes, March 2.
Threat goes back to May
Mazen has known the Abu-Zahra family of owners since childhood and has tried to serve as mediator to get them and their Six-S Realty Trust to talk with the city; he also parks a bus in the lot that is raising safety concerns, and said Monday he – like others parked there, including city employees – faces having to find a new place to put a vehicle in a city where snow has dramatically reduced even the challenging number of spots that exist in good weather.
“It would be better to have this conveyed manager-to-recipient in person, then have this voted in with extra oomph, rather than this thing lands on them when you’re going into a meeting that should be a simple negotiation,” Mazen said, signaling that he planned to charter right the order. “This will pass unanimously. So why not just have the conversation and get some promises from them and then bang this through next Monday?”
It was councillors Marc McGovern and E. Denise Simmons and vice mayor Dennis Benzan who returned Vail Court to the council’s front burner Monday.
Simmons already threatened an eminent-domain land seizing May 19, but even Benzan asking in January for an update hasn’t moved it off the city manager’s “awaiting reports” list. On Monday he noted that the parking lot was being plowed for use, while the structures looked neglected. “There’s no excuse whatsoever as to why these owners can’t remove graffiti from the front of the property,” Benzan said, calling it unfair to the neighbors and another reason to take property that could be turned into affordable housing “by any means necessary.”
There was a flurry of excitement early in the day as an Instagram user known as loxocele spotted a construction permit in a third-story window at Vail Court. “Holy crap, is it possible? Here at Cambridge’s most (in)famous derelict building, there’s a construction permit,” she wrote. “Has that been there all along without my noticing it, or is it as new as it seems?
Two permits were pulled for the property Feb. 5 and looked to be nothing more exciting than permission to board up windows, citizen journalist Saul Tannenbaum noted after a review of city records.
Simmons and others mentioned that with the recent extreme cold, it was believed there were now squatters in Vail Court.
“People are looking for ways to gain access, and I don’t think the building is secure the way it should be,” said councillor Tim Toomey, who cited a Public Safety Committee meeting late last year with city fire officials in warning that “we all know there’s flammable material, gas, next to that building now. This thing can go up in two seconds. It’s a public safety issue for that neighborhood. I just dread if some tragedy happens because this council has not taken the proper steps to eradicate this blight and nuisance.”
“It’s the public safety risk that is eating at me, and that I didn’t do enough if god forbid something happened on that site and innocent people get hurt. I could not live with myself,” Toomey said, calling the structure “a tinderbox” upon learning there was a well-used parking lot next door with “probably thousands of gallons of gasoline next to this vacant building that could go up in two seconds.”
“And here we are talking about removing graffiti,” Toomey said.
Toomey suggested that the city demolish the property “tomorrow” and bill the Abu-Zahras and Six-S Realty Trust – Simmons had the same suggestion about getting it cleaned and billing the trust – while Mazen continued to put hope in them renewing talks with the city manager. The family has been active building so-called “40B” affordable housing in Lynn, Mazen said.
While the Abu-Zahra family have been poor communicators with the city, McGovern said, so had the owners of Fresh Pond Mall at Alewife – until the council and city put pressure on them with talk of eminent domain over failure to improve neighbors’ passage across their property. The steps being discussed Monday were strong for the same reason, he said: to get their attention and prompt a response. The threat of daily fines building up could also get a response.
“Maybe that will soften my desire to take this by eminent domain,” McGovern said. “But in terms of cleaning the property? There’s no excuse. That property has sat there, nasty and disgusting and a blight on that neighborhood, for years. I don’t care if people are living in it or not, you have a responsibility.”
Several councillors had a chance to express their anger and frustration over the property, apparently stuck in litigation between Six-S Realty Trust and a company called Abeer Inc.
“We’re tired. We’ve had it. When we have 9,000 people sitting on the Housing Authority’s wait list, 3,000 of those being in Cambridge, and you just have this property sitting there just doing nothing, it’s egregious. I’m incredulous,” Simmons said. “It’s a sin, it’s an absolute sin.”