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THE SOMERVILLE FILES: PART 1: THE FIXED GEARS

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This is the first installment in a multi-part DigBoston series about the intersection of politics, development, and power in the City of Somerville.

Since the turn of the millennium, the media at large has declared Somerville to be something of a Hipster Pleasantville. Once a ribald mini-metropolis marred by corruption, the general perception has become that the city of nearly 80,000 is a healthy and progressive home for middle class families, vivacious young professionals, and hard-working immigrants alike. The Boston Globe has called Somerville “the best-run city in Massachusetts.” Recently, NPR reported that despite its “checkered past,” Somerville has found a new, hip identity.

But for the gobs of attention drawn to Somerville for marquee events like the annual Fluff Festival—or for its plethora of trendy features like cool coffee shops and bars—something appears to be rotten at the core.

Many of these troubles trace back to a tight circle of high-level officials and their cronies, the lot of whom appear to constitute a well-greased small city political machine.

In 2013, significant city contracts are still awarded to builders and service providers that donate generously to the campaigns of Mayor Joe Curtatone and his allies. In one case, contracts given to one design engineering firm—totaling in excess of $1 million—have been approved outside of a formal bidding process. For ordinary Somerville property owners, City Hall is a frustrating labyrinth to navigate. But for those who are wired into the establishment, virtually any breach of regulations is plausible.

Briefcases full of cash aren’t in plain view. But obvious conflicts of interest, as defined by Massachusetts General Law, are the grease that makes the wheels turn.

The corrosion in Somerville operations has been partially exposed in bits and pieces. Still, the big picture has been out of focus since the early 1970s, when the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about no-bid contracts and other slimy subterfuge. Back then, the city was a wounded post-industrial relic, riddled by pay-to-play pilfering.

Now, for the first time in four decades, the Dig looks behind Somerville’s fluffy, festive facade to see how much, if anything, has changed.

The story begins this week with an ongoing showdown over a proposed street redesign, and will unfold over the next several weeks, as we spelunk into the operational ecosystem of the city’s most powerful pols and players.

Photo credit: Derek Kouyoumjian
Illustrations by Carlos Montilla

TRACK FIGHT

It’s a chilly Tuesday night in March, and there are more than 100 Somervillians steaming in the Argenziano School cafeteria. They’re here to spar over a proposed cycle track that would span across Beacon Street, beginning just outside Porter Square and stretching half-a-mile toward the Inman area. This is the seventh heated forum on the subject; at this juncture, voices on both sides of the issue—those who want the cycle track, and those who strongly oppose it—are extremely ornery. They stopped playing nicely months ago, when planners proposed a drastic reduction in on-street parking.

According to the plan on deck, the cycle track would be a dedicated throughway situated between the sidewalk and a parking alley, with a small concrete barrier that would ostensibly keep cars out between side streets while allowing for emergency vehicles. As the diagrams around the lunchroom also show, the lane would eliminate at least 75 spaces. For some, recent storms that resulted in snow impeding spots only foreshadowed the troubles that this project could cause—the street was jammed with double-parked delivery trucks all winter. It was just the latest nightmare for local shop owners and residents, some of whom began making noise about road conditions more than a decade ago. The city and state have stalled in response, mostly because of budget constraints, leaving a messy patchwork of asphalt Band-Aids and incongruous lane markers. Now, on top of that, they could lose a significant number of spaces.

By a show of hands at the Argenziano, about half of those present think there is enough parking on Beacon Street. The others scoff in disagreement. Vincent Drago, a Somerville lifer in an Irish green sweatshirt, gets a hearty laugh from the opposing faction with a snub aimed at city workers in the room. “Not everyone from Beacon Street can be here,” says Drago. “Maybe they’re elderly—or maybe they’re afraid to lose their parking spots.”

With vitriol crisscrossing the cafeteria like Jell-O in a food fight, it’s clear that this dispute is over more than just a bike lane, or parking. At the heart of the Beacon Street debacle is the issue of a city that seemingly does whatever it wants, where it wishes—often in ignorance of regulations, and in spite of public outcry—when a project fits Curtatone’s vision of adding thousands of residential units around the city, along with all the chic urban accoutrements necessary to attract upwardly mobile buyers.

In this case, the cycle track has run afoul of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. A December 2012 DOT review of the Beacon Street plan eviscerated Somerville’s proposal. Among other shortcomings, the state cited a gauntlet of safety violations, and noted that planners neglected to address basic items like where bus stops would be situated.

Despite the poor DOT evaluation, as of mid-May, Somerville had yet to submit changes to the state. While concerns have been ignored by city planners, opponents of the plan are only shouting louder, their ranks now including Somerville State Sen. Pat Jehlen, who says that the proposal is awful enough to give all cycle tracks a bad name.

It’s no wonder they’re frustrated; many residents, have been waiting for this powder keg to explode. But what few seem to understand is the issue doesn’t have much to do with a cycle track at all. Sketchier shenanigans simmer underneath the surface.

THE HEADACHE HOTEL

Somerville officials have cherished Porter Square as an asset for years. Abutting a notably bustling section of Cambridge, the entire surrounding area is ripe for avant-garde development, as Somerville updates its standing among its wealthier neighbor. On the skirt circling Porter, one property that has especially enticed planners is a vacant former gas station at 371 Beacon St., located at the busy intersection of Somerville Avenue. It’s just steps from the proposed northern gateway to the cycle track. More importantly, it’s where tension over Beacon Street adjustments erupted four years ago.

The application for a 35-room boutique hotel with a 60-seat restaurant first appeared in 2009. Since developers sought to make a major change—they aimed to put a four-story structure on a narrow lot with a reduced parking exemption—they needed special permission from Somerville’s Zoning Board of Appeals to obtain a special permit for hotel use, which is prohibited in the current zoning. A zoning board is entrusted by Mass General Law to allow special permits that do not adversely impact the surrounding community using applicable zoning codes. Part of that is, of course, asking applicants who they are, what they want to build, and if there are outstanding issues in regard to the property.

Or at least that’s how the process is supposed to go.

For the owners of 371 Beacon St., it appears that the ZBA threw the rules in a wood chipper. Board members ignored glaring discrepancies in applications. Some documents listed the applicant as Dream City Associates, an LLC belonging to Katherine L. Ferrari, who was introduced to the board as the fiancé of Louis Makrigiannis, the son of the property owner. Others, in violation of a Somerville zoning ordinance, listed a nonexistent entity called “Beacon Street Hotel.”

Middlesex County lists George Makrigiannis as the owner of 371 Beacon St. His son Louis (who also spells his name “Lewis” on some documents), however, appears to run operations for their millions of dollars worth of real estate holdings. Though he’s now nearly 100 years old, George Makrigiannis has recently had several judgments issued against him for withholding tenants’ security deposits—even though former tenants of those properties tell the Dig that Louis Makrigiannis and his girlfriend, Katherine Ferrari of the aforementioned Dream City Associates, managed their deposits. In the face of opposition and the lack of a legitimate applicant, ZBA members still unanimously approved the project in January 2010.

Seth Goodman sought to stop the hotel. A nearby homeowner, he believed that planners overlooked the havoc that such a large building could reap on the already gnarly intersection, and sued the city. Unmoved, Somerville used public funds to defend itself despite what appeared to be a clear zoning violation, only to be told by a commonwealth land court judge two years later that the hotel application be amended, and resubmitted on behalf of an existing business. The Makrigiannis family obliged. Presented for a second time on April 18, 2012, the project won unanimous ZBA approval again. This time, the board rubber-stamped Makrigiannis Fuel, LLC as the applicant of record—even though George, listed as a primary manager of the company, had by then filed for personal bankruptcy in Massachusetts.

Furthermore, the ZBA did not take into account that Ferrari had been arrested for assaulting the elder Makrigiannis, a nonagenarian who increasingly appeared to be a front for the development. The assault charges, which were dropped, didn’t raise eyebrows, nor did the fact that an employee of Makrigiannis lawyer Richard DiGirolamo, Anne Vigorito, represented both development interests in 371 Beacon St., as well as those of George’s alleged attacker, Ferrari.

“If the rules are that the application needs to be complete, the obvious question is, ‘Why isn’t it?’” Goodman said back in 2010. “If I went to City Hall and I filled out an application that wasn’t complete, they’d throw it in the trash.

Why aren’t these developers required to fill out an application correctly too?”

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION

The city has yet to fully address the questions posed by Goodman, or other hotel opponents. A likely answer, though, is that George and Louis Makrigiannis benefitted from a multilateral flurry of friendly influence and favors. Of great help to the family in this process was their attorney, Richard DiGirolamo, whose knack for successfully shepherding extraordinary projects through the ZBA is legendary among locals. DiGirolamo is so good at his job that even Herb Foster, chairman of the ZBA, uses him as his own real estate lawyer. Foster has previously said that he believes he is able to remain impartial when his attorney has appeared before the board he heads.

The other force pushing the hotel along was Design Consultants, a local traffic engineering firm that serves private contracts, and also scores hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of annual business with Somerville. Like George and Louis Makrigiannis—who each donated the maximum $500 to Curtatone in 2009 and 2010—Design Consultants President David Giangrande contributes amply to the mayor, who appoints ZBA members. Curtatone has categorically denied engaging in quid pro quo dealings all throughout his career. Still, prospective and ongoing business partners donate generously.

Between 2011 and 2012, the Giangrandes gave the mayor more than $2000.

In conversations with the Dig, civil engineering experts who work in the Greater Boston area said Design Consultants wields a solid reputation; none recalled hearing anything negative about the firm. Nevertheless; the company is facing intense public scrutiny for landing deals without a formal bidding process. Since Design Consultants provides shovel-free services like surveying and traffic studies, Somerville is able to cite an exemption in state law that enables them to fatten Giangrande indiscriminately. Between 2011 and 2013, the company serviced nearly $1.5 million in city contracts.

Design Consultants is instrumentally embattled in the Beacon Street cycle track spat—and in more ways than some opponents of the plan may realize. In designing the hotel for Makrigiannis, back in 2009, the firm proposed for more than 80 parking spaces along Beacon Street to be used for hotel and restaurant guests. But in engineering the cycle track, Design Consultants slated to eliminate 75 spots along the same thoroughfare—creating what amounts to a major conflict of interest. Asked whether he realized this contradiction, Giangrande told the Dig that “the results of another firm’s traffic study for the hotel were factored into the cycle track study.”

The Curtatone administration has shown little bend. Shortly before the public meeting in March at the Argenziano School, the DOT asked for a resubmission of the plans. The city unveiled its updated design at the meeting, but the cycle track remained virtually unchanged, and stayed that way through at least May 9, when yet another set of plans was submitted. As for the hotel; Anne Tate, an outside urban design consultant who oversaw the forum, said, “It depends on what the developers do.”

In an email to the Dig, Hayes Morrison, Somerville’s director of transportation and infrastructure, said she has not heard any concerns about DCI. “This process is on schedule and moving forward as planned,” she wrote. “It will be a transformative project; helping Somerville fulfill our goal of being the most walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible community in the United States.”

John McVann, Massachusetts director of project delivery at the Federal Highway Administration, says public outcry has attracted interest from his office after hearing of “potential issues surrounding parking and the cycle track.”

“We typically rely on MassDOT through that [design process],” adding, “We’re providing oversight that we provide on all projects, but we’re keeping our finger on the pulse.”

For his part, Giangrande gives an equally rosy assessment: “In response to community concerns about pedestrian safety, we are coordinating with the MBTA to move bus stops away from the cycle track,” he wrote. “This appears to have been [a] robust community process that resulted in changes that incorporated community and MassDOT requests.

Meanwhile, residents, business owners, and even cyclists who just want Beacon Street paved are caught in the dangerous intersection of a questionable and potentially dangerous concept, the will of Somerville officials, and the greater public interest, whatever that may be.

“It has been shocking, disappointing, and discouraging,” says Domenic Ruccio, the outspoken owner of the Beacon Street Laundromat, located right inside the war zone. “It’s been awful. The thing I hear most of the time is, ‘Forget about it. It’s a done deal. The mayor wants this.’

Not to sound undergraduate, but it’s just not the way representative democracy is supposed to work.”

In the next installment, the Dig takes a look at the long history of political corruption in Somerville, and traces the roots of today’s troubles to past indiscretions. 






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17 Responses to THE SOMERVILLE FILES: PART 1: THE FIXED GEARS

  1. Jane Jane says:

    I know I’m just one person, but as a daily cyclist down Beacon Street, I would really just like some fresh pavement. It’s fine. Just. Pave. It!!!

  2. Ex-Villen Ex-Villen says:

    I don’t think $2000 would even fill one briefcase, unless it were rolls of pennies. This is a pretty weak controversy. Did you ever think that the reason the City and so many residents are pushing for a cycle track is to make people safer? Beacon Street has one of the highest bicycle rates in the State. Why don’t you just enjoy Fluff Fest?

  3. Bob Bob says:

    I’m really not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be here. That there are people in Somerville who don’t like bikes and hotels?

  4. I haven’t been following this conversation very closely and this is the first I’ve heard of the hotel plan. That said, I live in West Somerville and commute down Beacon on my bike daily. I quite like the idea of the cycle track and have been noticing just how much of the parking spaces are empty since I heard there was a todo about it.

    This article reads to me like its starts out with an assumptions that the cycletrack and hotel project are bad and then tries to dig up dirt to support that conclusion. I’m willing to believe that there’s corruption and that things are being done poorly. But I still like the basic goal of the plans. I still think some sort of cycle track and, well, anything other than a shuttered gas station, would be better than the current status quo on that stretch. Although the article seems to be taking issue with the methods, the authors seem pretty hostile to that conclusion and this seems to driving the story. Or am I reading this wrong?

  5. democraticprocessandinput democraticprocessandinput says:

    where are the readers’ comments?

  6. BillBose BillBose says:

    Look at what Rahm Emanuel is doing for bikes in Chicago. Or Bloomberg in NYC. Do you think they were also bought for $2000?
    The truth is that bikes reduce smog and noise, decrease traffic, and make citizens healthier. All of these points speak louder than $2000 in donations…

  7. monxious monxious says:

    My takeaway… the hotel/bike lane are not bad ideas per se, but that “robust community involvement” was either not sought or heeded, from individuals as well as politicians who *do* have concerns. And the article seeks to expose the issues involved in the city’s lack of response to community reaction. Like, the relationships among the developers, land owners and city boards…

    I think it’s a great article, presenting info – and questions – that I had not seen before.

  8. NinjaFish NinjaFish says:

    Anyone who is not upset by the developer favoring Somerville city govt. is not paying attention. In the meantime, this city has become a police state and people without political clout are getting screwed. Businesses and homeowners are being ticketed for overgrown shrubs and parking and waste barrel violations by inspectors with overzealous bosses (one admitted to me that his boss was pressuring him to ticket). Those fees and taxes just keep going up and up too! There is no way for an average citizen to fight back against city hall. So glad that journalists have taken this on! Our mayor is rumored to want to run for governor. If he is breaking the local laws now, well, I could imagine what he would do as governor!

  9. Rob Rob says:

    So far, this sounds like much ado about nothing. Or maybe there’s something, but it’s not clear what. As far as I can tell, you’ve discovered that a vendor who gets no-bid contracts with the City makes donations to the mayor. That’s news, although I’m willing to bet the same practice goes on in just about every other city. What’s not clear is that this has anything to do with the cycle track proposal or the wrong names on a hotel application (is it Lewis or Louis?!!). I suppose next you’ll demand a copy of the mayor’s long form birth certificate? :) Dig deeper my friends. Looking forward to the next installment.

  10. Matt Matt says:

    Boy, the young professionals in those meeting pictures look awfully vivacious.

  11. Dave O Dave O says:

    I’ve noticed that all of the heavy bike traffic along Beacon Street seems to go towards Inman Square and MIT. For my morning commute, I skirt around the potholes and bumps making my way in the opposite direction towards Porter Square. (The road condition is so bad between the Park Street and Oxford Street that I turn off Beacon onto Somerville Ave at some point in my ride). While I’m still on the Beacon stretch of my ride -at the peak of morning rush hour- I often find that at Washington Street I’m often the only cyclist waiting at the light while across the street there are 5 or 6 cyclists (or more) waiting. Does the proposed cycle track design account for this difference in bike traffic flow? I’ll add that I think that if Beacon Street were simply paved, I’d be a happy cyclist. I’ll add also that its strange that Beacon St. needs to be re-paved after a year’s worth of digging up the street about 5 years ago. When I lived at Beacon and Museum St. that year, we had to keep the windows shut all summer because of the constant construction noise.

  12. Reed Cochran Reed Cochran says:

    I’m not so sure the article unearths anything truly scandalous or illegal. Some colorful, distasteful characters, maybe. Some maximizing what is do-able under law, maybe. But no crimes. The City won’t be able to proceed with its plans without sign off from MassDOT, so the suggestion that they are ignoring regulations just because they haven’t finished dotting i’s or crossing t’s -is far-fetched. No mention of any deadlines missed. $2,000 in contributions from various members of the same family over two years is hardly a smoking gun, and certainly not even close to an incentive for the mayor to compromise ethics. $1.5 million going to one firm for work without a bidding process sounds less than prudent, but it was clearly legal. Funny that the article says the firm is under scrutiny- if there is malfeasance, it’s not the firm’s. Overall, not rigorous and overly suggestive.

  13. Born&RaisedHere Born&RaisedHere says:

    Cronyism, conflict of interest, and favoritism (different rules for those connected and doing business vs. reg homeowner). While most comments are about the cyclepath and hotel, the concern about abuse of power is the point. I can relate to the person who mentions being cited for overgrowth as I had that happen to me – when my yard was no different than it had been for 10 years. Meanwhile, try to get the police to take ‘quality of life’ issues seriously, as Mayor Joe talks the talk, but the message clearly is not conveyed to the rank and file who offer first and upfront why they can’t do anything to help rather than try to help. And absentee landlords running slum properties get away with being a plague to the community. While a lot is right here in Somerville, a whole lot is wrong and not being managed. Ethics should not be forsaken, screw the cyclepath and hotel, I’ll stay tuned for the next installment…..

  14. Pingback: Links 6/17/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  15. O O'Spud says:

    So something is rotten to the core in Somerville because they want to build a cycletrack? Oh, and maybe a hotel. Yeah, you really blew the lid off that can of worms.

    Honestly, outside of a few people spouting standard NIMBY nonsense what have you got here? And I love the ardent defense of the wasteland that is Beacon St. in Somerville. It’s a wasteland of empty parking spots. Maybe redesigning the street will make people actually willing to go there.

    Anyway, terrible article. Can’t wait to not read the sequels.

  16. D D says:

    I live on Beacon Street and although there’s “ample parking” in the evenings during the day It’s a different story. We get a lot of folks who park here and then make their way to Harvard. That gobbles up a lot of parking. Also when snow emergencies occur the parking evaporates quickly. I’m not against bike lanes but when I hear bicyclists look at the plan and say that they’ll ride in the street anyway, I can see that this plan is just a way of using Fed money to pad the wallets of friends of people in power. I don’t want to see my neighborhood trashed for something that sounds good but won’t solve any issues. The hotel by the way would be placed at the epicenter of a traffic boondoggle (check out the intersection around 5-7pm).