Proposed Somerville plan threatens some businesses

A city−led proposal to overhaul parts of Somerville and drive private investment to the area has garnered strong criticism from many community members for its plans to uproot a number of mainstay local businesses.

The District Improvement Financing (DIF) plan, presented to Somerville residents in a public hearing on Sept. 15, is a 30−year financing mechanism to improve the city’s infrastructure, roadways and appearance in an effort to attract business investors.

If approved, the DIF would allow the city to acquire up to 35 private and commercial properties through negotiated sale or eminent domain. Among locations listed for potential acquisition are a number of local, family−owned businesses that have existed in the city for decades.

The DIF, which requires approval by Somerville’s Board of Aldermen and the state before its implementation, would revamp close to 20 percent of the city’s land area, focusing on mainly underdeveloped areas in Union Square, Boynton Yards and several other parts of the city.

The project seeks to make these underutilized areas more vibrant urban centers.

“The principle goal is to open up the opportunity areas for new private development,” Monica Lamboy, the executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD), told the Daily. The OSPCD has spearheaded the plan.

The areas selected for improvement are predominantly near the proposed route of the Green Line extension project, Lamboy said. The plan’s approval, however, is far from certain. The Board of Aldermen’s Finance Committee held a hearing on the DIF on Oct. 6, but the body does not expect to make a decision within the next several months, according to Board of Aldermen President John Connolly.

“It’s much too early to even begin to establish a timeline,” Connolly told the Daily. “There’s a lot of talk to happen first.” Owners unaware of eminent domain possibility

One of the major concerns among the aldermen, Connolly said, was the lack of communication between the city and business owners whose properties were targeted in the DIF.

“Right now, myself and my colleagues don’t get the impression that the business owners were very closely involved,” he said. “They just got a benign letter, a cavalier notice.”

John Eleftherakis, the owner of John’s Auto Sales in Somerville, told the Daily that before the September public hearing neither he nor many of the other store−owners received notice from the OSPCD that the city had named their properties on the eminent domain list.

“No personal contact whatsoever,” Eleftherakis said.

Instead, he received a call from Stephen Mackey, the president and CEO of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, a business association independent of the city government; Mackey was the first to notify him that his store might be in jeopardy.

Mackey told the Daily that many of the businesses he called were aware neither of the hearing nor that their properties could potentially be acquired by the city under the proposal.

He believed that OSPCD sent letters to all property owners in the city notifying them of the hearing, but that they had refrained from mentioning which properties were targeted for possible acquisition.

“I still don’t know if for the first meeting they notified the people that were on the takings list that they were on the list,” Mackey said, adding that most of the owners he contacted were “stunned” after learning the news.

Under state regulations, if the city wishes to use DIF funds to acquire a property, it must specify in the DIF application any and all possible properties it could take, according to Lamboy.

“What has triggered concern is that we’ve put down on a piece of paper a list of properties,” she said. “None of those may happen,” as the city would try to negotiate with property owners first before relying on eminent domain, she added.

If a property is taken through the eminent domain mechanism, the city is obligated under federal and state law to help relocate the business, she said.

Eminent domain, she added, can only be claimed by a municipality if there is a public purpose behind the acquisition, like a plan to build a fire or police station. In Somerville’s case, the DIF application lists a performing arts center planned for 237 Washington St., a location currently occupied by a post office.

The DIF application expresses the city’s plans to use the land of 17 of the other listed properties in Union Square for a public parking garage. Lamboy said the city needed to increase its parking facilities because of a Union Square program that allows property developers to pay the city in lieu of providing parking on their own sites. Businesses on a ‘blacklist’

Ricky’s Flower Market, located at 238 Washington St., is one such property that could be acquired for the parking lot. A family−owned business, the store has been in Union Square for 22 years, according to owner Ricky DiGiovanni.

“This is who I am. This is what I do,” DiGiovanni told the Daily. “This is my livelihood.”

DiGiovanni said that the DIF’s proposal for Union Square could be beneficial to the community in the long−term, but said the project needed to be more thought−out before it could become a reality.

“Updating and working to put a little more polish on the square is always a good thing, but … to be moving too big, too fast is sometimes not a good recipe,” he said.

Whether or not the properties are acquired through the DIF, simply being added to the list could prove detrimental, Connolly said. Banks might be less likely to give loans to these owners if they believe their properties have the chance of being acquired at some point, he said.

Eleftherakis called the acquisition list a “blacklist.”

“It basically blackballed these properties,” he said. “[It] just destroyed the value of my property by putting it on the list.”

Eleftherakis’ family−owned store, John’s Auto Sales, has been in business in Union Square for 65 years, he said.

“I’m loyal to my city. I love my city, but this is my livelihood,” he said.

Connolly said that the Board of Aldermen would heavily consider the affected business owners in deciding whether to approve the DIF.

“We’re all going to be very apprehensive about how we proceed,” and are not in a rush to sideline businesses and long−term property owners who have helped shape the character of the city, he said.

Kofi Jones, a spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said that the Economic Assistance Coordinating Council, the body responsible for approving DIFs at the state level, requires that transcripts of public hearings be submitted with the city’s DIF application.

“This is a locally driven program, so they will most certainly take it into consideration,” Jones told the Daily, referring to public−hearing testimony.

The DIF must pass Somerville’s Board of Aldermen before making it to the state level.

“Right now, the DIF is an ‘if,'” Connolly said.