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.
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.
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?”
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.