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THE SOMERVILLE FILES: PART 2: GHOSTS OF ASSEMBLY SQUARE

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

If you’ve yet to hear about Assembly Row, just wait for the commercials. Construction is strong underway at the billion-dollar development, which stretches along the Mystic River over four acres in Somerville. Your next blind date might be at the incoming Legal C Bar. Maybe you’ll apply for work at one of the retailers that will open there, or in the state-of-the-art office space that’s being built along with hundreds of condos. When you get to Assembly, though, try not to think about the ghosts buried deep beneath the esplanade.

When the grand vision for this consumer age Utopia comes to glory (current estimates are for fall 2014) there likely won’t be a memorial to honor the careers that were lost along the way. During the past four decades, the Assembly Square area—a long-vacant former industrial site that is now becoming Assembly Row—has been a tar pit for aldermen, developers, local pols, and even a high-ranking member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, all of whom were led astray by the promise of a fast and easy buck.

If Somerville did pay homage to those fallen members of the old boys club, etched in stone would be the likes of former Assessor Robert Campo and former State Rep. Vincent J. Piro, the latter of whom once accepted a $5,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent. Along with two aldermen, both were indicted on corruption charges related to Assembly shenanigans.

With its quicksand-like knack for swallowing officials, Assembly’s foul legacy has tainted several administrations, and has left tangible traces in the politics of modern Somerville.

Stan Koty, who was Piro’s chief of staff during his downfall over bribery charges, currently heads the Department of Public Works, and has a wife and son who are employed by the city. Even after all these years, Koty’s sway over local elections is unmatched.

While the trials of Assembly Square have broken many men before him, Mayor Curtatone has leveraged the enduringly ugly situation all the way to the city’s top office. He’s endlessly campaigned, touting development at Assembly, and has worked to ensure that zoning is conducive to projects he supports. Those plans have changed over the years, the latest being a mixed-use urban oasis with a significant residential component. Meanwhile, opponents claim that Curtatone is underestimating the economic strain that could come with building homes on such a large scale.

In surveying Assembly development—along with corresponding plans for adding an Orange Line stop to the area—a few lingering difficulties endure. With construction jobs at stake, local workers are picketing the city over alleged broken labor promises. There’s also controversy simmering over a proposed supermarket, which community advocates argue could jeopardize the area’s potential.

To trace how the municipality arrived at this juncture, more than three decades into their largest development project in history, DigBoston summoned the ghosts of Assembly Square’s past.

Covered in slime, we came to understand what Somerville’s Big Dig says about the city itself, both then and now.

Photo credit: Derek Kouyoumjian
Illustrations by Carlos Montilla

OLD FACE, SAME PLACES

After 32 years in Somerville, Ford Motor Company closed its Assembly Square production plant in 1958. The shutdown came at the severe cost of the local economy, which at the time comprised about 80 percent first or second generation Americans, mostly from Ireland, Italy, and Canada. Though the mean family income in 1960 was $6,000, or slightly above the national average, property taxes were among the  highest in the state, with Somerville owing almost $7 million—the equivalent of $51 million today—in short term loans to cover basic operating costs.

As the ’70s approached, there were ample reasons to invest in Somerville. In 1969, an unknown minister named S. Lester Ralph toppled the incumbent mayor James Brennan, spurring local media to style Ralph as a much-needed reformer in an age of rampant corruption. Notably, Ralph opened city hall up to reporters from the Boston Globe, who in 1971 exposed deep-rooted municipal corruption in a series that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Among other revelations, the reporters showed that throughout the ’60s, Somerville spent the modern day equivalent of $31 million on no-bid contracts given to businesses connected to the government by financial and familial ties.

In 1980, Mayor Eugene Brune took office, and promptly installed a staff of young, idealistic professionals. In a tumultuous decade, Brune was a competent and ethical mayor, but his time was marked by indictments and convictions: an assistant director at the city’s housing authority was found guilty of fraud; an administrator at the Council on Aging was charged with misappropriating funds; a director of the Somerville-Cambridge Economic Council was caught embezzling $33,000 to support his cocaine habit. Much of the rigmarole revolved around Assembly Square.

Close to Boston and directly on the water, Assembly Square has always been ripe for development.

That opportunity first presented itself in the mid-’70s, after a warehouse outfit on the property closed down, allowing the city to purchase the land. A local builder, the East Bay Development Corp., promised office space, revitalization, and more than 1,000 jobs. Instead, Somerville got a Jordan Marsh, a Kmart, and a headache that would last into the new millennium.

Known for his year-round tan and impeccable swagger, Vincent Piro worked his way up from Somerville alderman to state committeeman to a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1967. By 1984, Piro had become the majority whip on Beacon Hill, making him an attractive target for a federal probe into apparent bribery swindles. Posing as a representative for the East Bay Development Corp., an FBI agent named Jack Callahan had already busted—and subsequently flipped—Alderman Timothy Creedon, who brokered city approval for Assembly liquor licenses in exchange for an $8,500 payoff.

With Creedon on board, the US Attorney’s Office dispatched Callahan to visit Piro at the State House with a wire on. The plot initially worked; Piro asked the undercover for $25,000, specifying that he had to “grease a few guys.” But three weeks later, Piro invited Callahan back to his office and returned the money, claiming that his conscience wouldn’t let him take the bribe.

Despite taped evidence, Piro never went down in the liquor license dragnet. A judge declared a mistrial in his proceedings in 1984; six months later, the state rep was found not guilty in federal court. Others were less fortunate. Alderman Creedon was sentenced to a year in prison for pocketing bribes, while Assessor Robert Campo was also indicted in connection with Assembly corruption. The perp walk continued with the indictment of Campo’s son-in-law, Ward 3 Alderman Michael McKenna.

At the Campo-McKenna trial, testimony revealed that aldermen Frank Bakey, Alan Kenney, and Vincent Ciampa also accepted contributions in exchange for votes on liquor licenses. So, apparently, did Ward 5 Alderman Joe Macaluso, who admitted to taking $350 from a donor who had first tried to bribe him. Years later, Macaluso had a criminal complaint issued against him after cops found a car that he reported stolen parked on his Martha’s Vineyard property.

And still, he remains a fixture in Somerville government—Macaluso currently serves as executive director of the Somerville Housing Authority.

THE OPPOSITION

Despite a lack of a cohesive master plan and funding, in the early 1990s, Assembly took a big step with the arrival of a Home Depot. But between economic downturns and a costly focus on crime fighting, Mayor Michael Capuano’s administration accomplished little in the way of beautifying the site.

In 1998, former school committee member Dorothy Kelly Gay replaced Capuano in a special election, defeating sitting Aldermen Joe Curtatone and John Buonomo. Gay’s rise coincided with the formation of the Mystic View Task Force—a citizen group established to advocate for community interests in the Assembly building process. Their goals: $30 million in new property tax revenues, 30,000 new permanent jobs, and 30 acres of open space.

Mystic View presented evidence that, developed as an office-based neighborhood with supporting retail and housing, Assembly Square could easily achieve those goals. But in order to do that, big-box behemoths—which had dominated much of the Assembly discussion—could not be an option. Office complexes score high value assessments, which result in greater tax revenue and more jobs. Not so much in the case of stores and restaurants, though developers find retail sexy on account of space being easy to lease. Mystic View held the position that focusing the whole project around retail would underutilize the property, as previous development initiatives had shown. Furthermore, they argued that such development would fall short of spurring the tax influx that the city needed.

Mayor Gay had other ideas; though she told the Globe that she agreed with Mystic View, to the dismay of many, she called for a big-box concept. The task force alleged that the proposal violated a Somerville zoning ordinance, leading to a conflict that became a key political instrument for Alderman Curtatone when, in 2003, he launched his second bid for mayor. Casting Assembly as a central campaign issue—arguing that it would become a strip mall over his “dead body”—Curtatone won the election. In his efforts, the four-term alderman had the backing of Assembly veterans including Stan Koty, the former Piro chief of staff. (Soon after Curtatone took office, Koty was handed the DPW seat that he holds to this day.)

Curtatone also got assistance from Natasha Perez, a former campaign staffer who worked on his previous mayoral run. Perez, also deputy director of the state Democratic party at the time, was working for a company called Gravestar, which belonged the limited partnership that wanted to develop a strip mall at Assembly. There, Perez was tasked with managing political and media relations for Assembly development efforts.

In the process of campaigning, the aspiring mayor—whose campaign account started off more than $100,000 in debt in 2003—accepted thousands in donations from real estate professionals. Bolstered by these private forces, he outspent his opponent by nearly 400 percent, and sailed to victory. With Curtatone in office, Boston-based attorneys Palmer & Dodge, whose partners pumped nearly $2,000 into his campaign, was paid at least $450,000 to write new zoning for Assembly.

The resulting map—allowing for a strip mall, which Curtatone had previously protested—was approved.

Of the involved parties, the properties’ commercial interests—chiefly Taurus New England and Gravestar, both of an alliance called Assembly Square Limited Partners—made out the best. With the allure of quick leases boosted by the retail-friendly zoning, the land became attractive to potential developers. That allowed the limited partnership, with former Curtatone campaign staffer Perez representing them at city hall, to flip Assembly at a $30 million profit.

Having bought the property for $64 million in 2005, the Maryland-based Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) quickly built a Staples and a Christmas Tree Shop. Mystic View sued the city, and a Massachusetts land court later ruled that Palmer and Dodge’s zoning amendment was illegal. But by then, Federal Realty Investment Trust had bought the property and built a big-box strip mall. Playing defense, city hall issued a press release applauding the court’s ruling—even though it nullified Curtatone’s prescribed plans. Meanwhile, IKEA had also bought land at Assembly, and was planning to build there as well. So rather than stop development in its tracks, Mystic View, FRIT, and IKEA entered mediation to determine the future of Assembly Row. In the process, all sides secured concessions, resulting in a sort of stalemate. As part of the agreement, residents were promised designated office and R&D facilities, plus ample open green space along the Mystic. FRIT and IKEA also pitched in $15 million for the Orange Line station.

For better or worse, those talks led to the site’s current plan.

PARADISE LOST

Since buying into the area, Federal appears to have gained tremendous influence at city hall. In the past three years alone, the builders contributed $100,000 to the city for a new municipal hockey rink, while Curtatone has accepted $2,150 from company executives. FRIT’s relationship with the mayor has proven fruitful; in 2010, Curtatone helped secure a $25 million loan from the state to pay for new infrastructure in Assembly—despite a legal obligation carried over from the previous owner providing that FRIT complete such work themselves. Endorsing a plan that strapped city taxpayers with the burden—$25 million, plus interest, to be paid off over the next 30 years—Curtatone moved for the financing arrangement after FRIT, a publicly traded company worth billions, threatened to walk away from Somerville.

There’s also a showdown brewing over local jobs, as storefronts like Starbucks and Burger Dive are already up-and-running, and with a multiplex and other large buildings in the works. A city spokesperson tells the Dig that “the Mayor has taken every available legal and legislative route to cultivate an environment in Somerville that benefits local workers.” Still, his administration spoke in support of FRIT’s hiring practices to the Somerville Journal—even as residents picketed the project over the lack of local jobs in its development thus far.

Shortly after IKEA backed away from the parcel last year (the Swedish company maintains ownership, but will not develop a store there), FRIT announced intentions to build a single-story supermarket on the grounds—a proposal that would again require a new zoning initiative. After spending more than a decade fighting over best uses for Assembly, Mystic View members argue that the store should serve as the first floor of a larger building that includes revenue-driving office space. Activists say that FRIT’s proposal serves as a reminder about whose corner Curtatone stands in; in response, city spokesperson Denise Taylor tells the Dig that the “one-story grocery store proposal has not moved forward because we are confident this plan will improve, thanks to the very helpful public comments so far and our goal of finding more creative and innovative plans for this space.” Still, the agenda for a public meeting to discuss the project in July refers to the development as a “ground-floor supermarket.”

From Mystic View’s perspective, the supermarket issue rings familiar, with City Hall apparently petitioning for short-term solutions that benefit developers more than residents. Referring to the latest feud as “déjà vu,” task force member Wig Zamore says the episode harkens back to debates of decades past. “For a political establishment that [doesn't have] lot of mixed-use experience, it’s easier to just go with what the most powerful developer asks you to do,” he says.

“Meanwhile, we’re just falling further and further behind Cambridge and Boston.”

In the next installment, the Dig will show some of the ways Curtatone’s development agenda has manifested throughout Somerville: an ethically challenged zoning board, uncertified building commissioners, and residents learning to fight back.

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One Response to THE SOMERVILLE FILES: PART 2: GHOSTS OF ASSEMBLY SQUARE

  1. Cynthia Fowler Cynthia Fowler says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent reporting on the way that Somerville politics are undermining the community. Great work!