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Vail Court, at 139 Bishop Allen Drive, near Central Square

Vail Court, at 139 Bishop Allen Drive, near Central Square, has derelict apartments but an active commercial parking lot. Seen in a photo from last summer, the property bears a “No trespassing” sign at the lower left. (Photo: Google)

A property owner’s long-in-the-making meeting with the city manager – which included a city offer to buy the land – has resulted in action on an abandoned apartment complex that neighbors have been calling a blight for more than a decade.

The second-generation owners of the Abu-Zahra family were under pressure to talk from city councillors who saw the operation of a commercial parking lot at the site as not just an insult, but a danger that moved “probably thousands of gallons of gasoline next to this vacant building that could go up in two seconds,” in the words of councillor Tim Toomey.

Squatters setting fires inside to warm up from a frigid winter is far from the only problem, a neighbor testified to the council Monday about Vail Court, a 24-unit, 0.65-acre property at 139 Bishop Allen Drive a block from Massachusetts Avenue and the heart of Central Square.

“It’s a place where substance abusers gather at night and where some my neighbors … have had guns pulled on them by people congregating on the property,” said Larry Kolodney, an Austin Park resident who passes the property daily on the way to work. “For many years now I’ve contacted city councillors to do something about this, and I’m heartened to see action is finally being taken.”

Orders to the owner

The owners have agreed to clean the site, remove graffiti and meet city code under threat of fines enforced by daily visits by the city’s Inspectional Services Department, said councillor Nadeem Mazen, a family friend who played a direct role in getting them to sit with City Manager Richard C. Rossi. The City Manager’s Office failed to answer a request Wednesday for more details on the meeting.

Councillors have also ordered that the property be made safer and gets a visit by exterminators. The owners have 30 days to explain their long-term plans for the site.

Mazen is the owner of a 40-foot bus that he has parked in the Vail Court lot, a potential conflict that led him to remove himself from votes Monday and drew criticism from Patrick Barrett, a Central Square property owner. Barrett chided Mazen about an abrogation of responsibilities “because of either personal or fiduciary reasons” that led to a  “reprehensible” week’s delay in action.

Mazen said he has struggled to find a replacement parking lot since learning of the potentially illegal operation of the Abu-Zahra lot’s, where his bus had been vandalized.

While accepting Barrett’s criticism, Mazen said the week’s delay resulted in a productive meeting with promising results. He had “high hopes” the parking lot was next on the list for a speedy solution “once we clear the urgent and pressing requirements the city has placed on the owner.”

Land taking and demolition

Councillors were unrelenting, though, opting to load an order for action with threats of land seizing and potential demolition.

Councillor Craig Kelley resisted keeping the threat of eminent domain land seizure, calling it “idle,” but he faced solid opposition from seven other councillors who felt it kept pressure on the property owners.

“I don’t know if it’s an idle threat or not, but my intent for making the order the first time was to get the owners’ attention. Sometimes if you don’t look like you’re going to take some kind of monetary remedy, people don’t respond,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said.

“It isn’t a veiled threat from my position,” councillor Marc McGovern added. “And maybe if we’d started the eminent domain process five years ago we’d be in a different place with the property today.”

The threat of demolition – with the property owners getting the bill – was proposed by vice mayor Dennis Benzan based on the safety hazards of the long-empty and unmaintained property, where the lives of police officers or firefighters would be at risk from entering in a crisis and the city could face legal liability if a trespasser got hurt. Toomey, who warned of the dangers at a previous meeting, applauded the amendment, saying, “The city is on the hook for a huge, huge sum of money if god forbid something happens there. We have been warned many many times the city can be held fiscally responsible for any type of tragedy that happens.”

“Our triple-AAA bond rating will be right out the window if god forbid something happens because of the amount of money we would have to pay out in damages,” Toomey said, referring to the night’s announcement about the city’s sterling credit.

Mazen wanted city inspectors to weigh in before a demolition threat was added, but the language stayed with only Kelley and councillor Dennis Carlone voting against it.

Onward

The owners are in long-term litigation but plan to develop the site once they are able, Mazen said. And although he was comfortable saying the city manager “made it very clear” how much the city would like to buy Vail Court, “I don’t know whether they’re entertaining buyers. I rather doubt it given comments I’ve heard from other interested buyers who abut the property.” (Barrett said he once offered several million for the property, but his offer was rejected.)

If the pressure on the Abu-Zahras work at Vail Court, said Mazen, a Central Square resident and business owner, similar techniques could be used elsewhere in the area.

“This is not an isolated issue in Central Square,” Mazen said. “There are other defunct, regularly tagged and underutilized spaces which are themselves a blight, and I hope that we take the initiative with this owner and with this property and that we extend it – hopefully rapidly – to a number of other underutilized ground-floor retail types of blight in the square.”

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