Sunday, June 16, 2024

The former Phil’s Towing lot at 333 Webster Ave. in Cambridge, with construction in Somerville’s Union Square in the background. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge’s Public Works Department may get new space in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood that the city plans to take in a “friendly” eminent domain proceeding – an acre that includes 333 Webster Ave., until recently the offices and impound lot of Phil’s Towing.

A vote by the City Council on Monday would empower the city to offer $14.4 million to Webster Avenue Ventures LLC through its registered agent, lawyer and affordable-housing developer Sean Hope.

“WV has agreed to sell,” City Manager Yi-An Huang reported in a memo in the council’s agenda packet.

There are four contiguous parcels in the 34,695 square feet for the city, including one over the Somerville line. The owner has “agreed to enter into a purchase-and-sale agreement that will allow the city to use and occupy the Somerville parcel until title to the Somerville parcel can be transferred to the city,” according to the memo. The agreement must be executed before June 30.

In addition to the Phil’s Towing lot, the parcels include lot space at 455 Columbia St., the E&C Bottle & Can Return recycling center at 319 Webster Ave. and a “mostly vacant” space at 94 Webster Ave., Somerville, “historically used as an automobile junkyard.”

The E&C Bottle & Can Return recycling center has been closed to become part of a sale to the City of Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Phil’s shut down April 14 after nearly 40 years in business, blaming a one-year street cleaning pilot program that aimed to reduce the financial impact of towing on residents and took away as much of 65 percent of the business’ revenue as a result. “My business was catered to the city of Cambridge,” owner Phil Bard said.

The redemption center shut down April 28 after negotiations began between the city and Webster Avenue Ventures LLC. A worker onsite Friday said the closing had been abrupt.

The closing is bad for low-income and unhoused people who used can redemption as a source of income. “There is nothing similar nearby. Grocery stores do not take alcohol bottles,” said Lee Farris, a resident who heard of the closing Tuesday from a man who recycled there.

Still, she was glad the city would get the property, Farris said.

The light industrial uses of the land over the decades means “urban fill” and likely other pollution and “some risk that currently unknown contamination could be encountered during development of the property” and demand remediation, according to the City Manager’s Office. That will be less of a problem if the land is used for the Public Works Department than for other municipal needs that may follow, it said, but the near-certainty of contamination makes some environmental insurance harder to get.

Long-needed space

Public Works, which has offices in Wellington-Harrington at 147 Hampshire St., has been looking for more space for years. Renovations there approved in 2020 were described as a desperation move after fruitless searches for another home. “We’ve held off on a lot of buildings knowing they weren’t the perfect location. We had our eyes out for somewhere else,” said Louis A. DePasquale, city manager at the time. “It’s not from lack of effort that we have not found a site to either purchase, lease or rent.”

The Webster Avenue Ventures LLC sites were appraised by Steven Foster of Lincoln Property; his valuation of $14.4 million was checked by the city’s chief assessor, Gayle Willett, according to Huang’s memo.

The initial or “pro tanto” payment the council must approve to secure the property is $3.1 million; Huang is asking approval at the same time for the remaining $10.3 million and $1 million in parcel payments and an additional $1 million to “develop plans, acquire the fit-out and furnishings and to undertake minor renovations for DPW to use and occupy the premises.”

A message was left Friday for Hope for comment from the property owner, but he did not immediately reply.