Somerville residents reclaim empty lot, then forced out in latest rift of 10-year saga
On a recent weekend afternoon in Winter Hill, a group of neighbors, forced by a court order, dismantled a community-built park they had raised in an empty lot.
For a decade, 30 Sewall St in Somerville has been a “vacant eyesore” to surrounding residents. The property once served as an employee parking lot for Star Market, but according to neighbors, the space transformed into an area for people to defecate, urinate, litter, and consume drugs and alcohol after the grocery store shuttered in 2007.
In a rapidly changing city where there’s seemingly a battle involving developers, residents, and bureaucrats waging on every block, the Sewall Street struggle stands out as a particular point of contention. In 2010, after they were blocked from an attempt to lease the property to Ocean State Job Lot, the owners of the parcel filed a complaint against Somerville in Middlesex Land Court. Following a ruling that the city’s planning board was indeed able to dictate what kind of building should go there—basically, community leaders want something higher-end and mixed use, rather than a discount store—officials said they hoped that both sides would bury the hatchet. But then there were appeals, and subsequent decisions, and no movement at all. So, since the lot’s still empty, and because it has been frequented by vagrants, residents took another route.
According to Winter Hill resident Ian Adelman, in September Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, along with candidates for that area’s alderman position, joined residents at the lot to speak about various possibilities. Adelman said the idea of taking the parcel by eminent domain in order to make it a park was considered, but the mayor encouraged the community to pursue a project and solution on its own.
In October, the Winter Hill Neighborhood Association, a group of Somerville residents whose mission is to improve the quality of life on Winter Hill, convened in the lot once again, this time to further discuss plans. Additional meetings with the city followed, but in time association members decided to take matters into their own hands. As Curtatone wrote on Facebook in early September, “Somerville needs community activism around spaces like this to hit SomerVision’s goal of 125 acres of open space.”
Calls for donations yielded, among other things, a swing set, a basketball hoop, a sandbox, and plants. Random contributions helped the neighbors redesign the space, and they recently began hosting events there—a walk-in movie night, a family halloween party. A community garden was in the works, and according to Stephen Moore, a direct abutter, remnants of litter became less and less prominent.
Moore said, “Within weeks, we didn’t see the little brown bags being left on the stairs and less and less the bottles filled with urine… The group that used to gather right over there and defecate and urinate on the transformer in my garage stopped hanging out. They would move over to the fence and then they were gone all together.”
Event planning and donations of park items continued. But on Oct 27, residents witnessed their first signs of opposition when fences went up with signs marking the property as private. On Nov 2, the owner of the lot served a cease and desist order on Moore. In a subsequent exchange with the Winter Hill Neighborhood Association and Stephen Moore, the owning family wrote, “We do not have a problem with the motivation behind your efforts to use the property, but surely you must understand that the owner of the property should have been consulted and a part of any discussion on how the property will be used and by whom.”
According to email exchanges, which were shared on a Sewall Commons Facebook page, the owners were concerned with liability issues and wanted the property returned to its original form. The residents empathized, but still stand behind their morphing the negative space into a positive one for the overall safety of the community.
Erika Tarlin, a longtime resident of Somerville, expressed her aggravation on the day association members were clearing the makeshift park. “It is still cracked concrete and a chain linked fence but kids don’t see that,” Tarlin said. “They just see a chance to play, and what’s wrong with that? Mr. Cohen thinks there is lots wrong with it.”
In his turn, Chad Cohen, the vice president of the owning realty group, blamed the city for the impasse. In a letter to Moore (that Cohen also sent to DigBoston in response to our request for comment), he wrote:
This property has been family-owned since 1948, and since that time the Property has been fully occupied. It was not until Star Market abruptly departed in 2008 that we had an opportunity to make improvements to the property and bring in a new tenant. Unfortunately, the City [of Somerville] had different ideas and wanted the site developed into a large dense mixed use building …
The City created an overlay zoning district to both promote its own vision for development while blocking us from renting to viable tenants that we felt would have been perfect for the Winter Hill neighborhood … In those discussions with the City, the area you are currently using as a playground, was being proposed by the City to be the entrance and egress for an underground parking lot …
Despite our success in the years of litigation that followed our efforts to get a tenant in the building, the City has vowed to fight on, and in doing so has essentially blocked us from putting in grocery stores, national retail tenants, or any other businesses that we felt would add vibrancy to the neighborhood.
In response to that characterization, a Somerville spokesperson wrote in an email to DigBoston, “The City has not ‘blocked’ development on this site, rather it wants nothing more than to see Mr. Cohen come forth with a proposal that will serve the needs of the community. However, for the seven years since his original proposal to slap a big box store into this neighborhood in the form of an Ocean State Job Lot was rejected by Somerville’s independent Planning Board, he has chosen to fight this in court rather than find a solution that would serve both the neighborhood and him well.”
As for the community park effort, the city spokesperson added, “We don’t just support the effort, we applaud them for being creative and taking action to improve their neighborhood. As part of the Somerville by Design neighborhood planning process, the community and this neighborhood have invested a substantial amount of time and effort.”
After a series of exchanges with the landlord, community members agreed to the terms of the cease and desist order, but are not finished scrapping.
“When you don’t [stay engaged],” Moore said, “developers can feel compelled to have an apathetic neighborhood to contribute to, or to contribute their interests to. When you remain quiet, you are left to whatever decisions are made above you or without you.”
As an administrator on the Sewall Commons Facebook page wrote soon after the destruction of the park, “We managed to accomplish in 8 weeks what has not [occurred] in the 10 years previously: get the ownership’s attention and begin a dialogue to forging a new and productive relationship that focuses on a new revitalization plan in partnership with the community and the city.”
“The fight is not over,” said Jesse Clingan, now the alderman-elect for the area. “We will see something up on Winter Hill. We are not going to give up.”
Residents who would like to get involved in Sewall Commons fight can contact the Winter Hill Neighborhood Association at email@example.com