Calling Vail Court ‘blight on neighborhood,’ city officials seek a $3.7 million land seizure
Out of patience with family squabbling over desirable but neglected real estate near Central Square, city officials are likely to approve Monday an eminent domain land taking of Vail Court.
An appraisal commissioned by the city puts a fair market value of the property at $3.7 million, which would be given to the Abu-Zahra family and its Six-S Realty Trust in exchange for taking the 0.65-acre property at 139 Bishop Allen Drive a block from Massachusetts Avenue and the heart of Central Square.
“It remains a blight on the neighborhood and a public safety concern,” City Manager Richard C. Rossi said in a letter to be taken up by the City Council at its regular weekly meeting. “I therefore recommend that the City Council take this property pursuant to its eminent domain powers and to redevelop the property.”
The site, now hosting 24 boarded-up apartment units, would be turned into affordable, senior or transitional housing, Rossi said. The council could approve the transfer of money for the taking Monday.
Owners Six-S Realty Trust has been identified as Mohammed Abu-Zahra and his five brothers, although the property was managed by their sister, Samira Jallad. In the owners’ story of Vail Court, the property was slated in 2005 to go condo, and the trust was allowing units to empty out in anticipation of tear-down and reconstruction. But the plans 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.
Over the years, as Cambridge’s real estate prices have continued to surge and the market has continued to tighten, officials have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of action on the site.
Amid debate over Vail Court last year, councillor Nadeem Mazen – a longtime friend of the family, who once tried to broker a peace between its members and frustrated city officials – said he believed the litigation among family members made a land taking all but impossible. “The whole thing is a moot point as far as I understand. The city can’t do a taking – the owners are still in litigation and we literally wouldn’t know whom to take from,” Mazen said in January 2015.
But he too eventually agreed that municipal action against the owners was warranted.
Mayor E. Denise Simmons asked Rossi and his office in May 2014 to look into taking Vail Court, later explaining her rationale: “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.”
While the idea of a land taking hasn’t received unanimous support in past debates, either from city officials or the Abu-Zahras’ fellow property owners, it’s likely there are enough votes to transfer the money and launch the legal process.
Last year, when the process was in its latest round of consideration, vice mayor Marc McGovern said, “And maybe if we’d started the eminent domain process five years ago we’d be in a different place with the property today.”