This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.
Amidst Somerville’s citywide zoning regulations and massive development efforts in areas such as Union Square and Davis Square, there are a few projects throughout the city that are still not yet underway.
Three of these projects consist of vacant pieces of land in East Somerville: the property across from Stop & Shop, Cobble Hill and Patsy’s Pies. Though some building permits have expired, the city does not own any of the pieces of land and is unable to start construction for any project.
In 2013 the Corcoran Jennison Management Co. was granted zoning permits for Cobble Hill where it proposed to build a six-story building project with both residential and commercial units.
The next year Joseph Mullins, a minority partner from Mullins Management, filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Joseph Corcoran and Jennison claiming the project was too risky.
In 2016 president Michael Mullins said the team had several objections to the proposed project, but did not specify.
Somerville Director of Planning George Proakis said, from what he understands, the partners cannot touch the land until the lawsuit is resolved, including repopulating the building.
Before the lawsuit was brought against Corcoran Jennison, said Proakis, developers put a fence around the site.
“It’s utterly ridiculous,” said Proakis. “It was not a complicated project to get built, but instead (developers) decided that this was the way they were going to handle it.”
The permit for Patsy’s Pies, which is owned by China-based YIHE Real Estate, also expired in recent years. Proakis is unsure of the reasoning behind that, but says the company is still paying property taxes.
As for the property near Stop & Shop, there has been minimal construction from developers, but nothing of serious action.
Ward 1 Alderman Matthew McLaughlin has voiced concerns for the three proposed projects.
Not only are the vacant lots eyesores, he said in a phone interview, but they’re also inconvenient and impractical.
“There’s been nothing done with the exception that one of the contractors took a bunch of dirt from Temple Street and moved it down to the Stop & Shop site,” said McLaughlin.
Even if the developers eventually lose their permits, he continued, it wouldn’t be good for Somerville, as they would still own the property and the city can’t force them to build.
Adding an abandoned property tax or something similar would potentially be an incentive to move forward with construction, said McLaughlin, but that doesn’t exist.
Or, he suggested, developers would have to pay a fee to build on the land and they would only be reimbursed when they started building.
“The thing that bothers me the most is we’re getting all this pressure to concede to the developers to give them what they need to build,” he said. “We give them what they need and they don’t do it anyways.”
Proakis said the Office of Strategic Development and City Planning (OSCPD) is also frustrated by the stalled projects.
The team went through an extensive amount of design review, design discussions and meetings to gain a community consensus about the properties, much like they’re doing right now with Union and Davis squares.
“(OSPCD and the Board of Aldermen) worked very hard to bring the process to a point where they were satisfied,” said Proakis. “They do all of that work, get the approval and then it’s silence for a long time, and that’s really frustrating.”
A matter of regulations
The issue, he explained, is that the developers still own the land. Though the companies have been paying their taxes, he said, the projects will be subject to new zoning regulations.
Somerville has passed new inclusionary housing zoning since the permits were granted almost three years ago. Now, said Proakis, the developers will need to add more affordable housing in their units.
’It’s good for affordable housing, but from the perspective of that developer, it makes you wonder why they didn’t build before that because it impacts their bottom line,” said Proakis, speaking specifically about the Cobble Hill property. “They are losing money, sitting on vacant land.”
Under current rules, he continued, there’s nothing the OSPCD can do to force developers to move forward with construction. The Cobble Hill site, for example, is not in an urban renewal district, and it’s not an acquisition parcel.
“All I can do right now is bother them, essentially,” said Proakis. “We can remind them how much money they are losing.”
Looking forward, said Proakis, he expects to see action from the Stop & Shop development soon. The city plans to meet with the developers in the coming weeks and “nudge them along.” The other two locations, he said, are the more unfortunate situations because of their expired permits.
He also said he’s hoping to have a conversation with the Board of Aldermen, specifically McLaughlin, about current regulations and laws regarding the sites.
“I welcome the conversation with Alderman McLaughlin about seeing if we can put something else behind it,” Proakis said. “I don’t know what that is yet, but I do know that he is asking those right questions.”