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Stand-off in Somerville

Property owner says mayor’s vision blocked plan for new store

The owner of the property at 299 Broadway inked a lease with Ocean State Job Lot, but said the mayor told him the store does not fit his plans. The owner of the property at 299 Broadway inked a lease with Ocean State Job Lot, but said the mayor told him the store does not fit his plans. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / January 15, 2011

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Jim Cohen figured it would be a slam-dunk: Bring discount retailer Ocean State Job Lot to a vacant building he owns on a rundown block on Somerville’s Winter Hill.

The store would restore some life to the neighborhood, provide several dozen jobs, and offer residents inexpensive food, clothing, and housewares. Or at least that was his plan until he met with Somerville’s mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone, back in the summer of 2008.

“ ‘Over my dead body,’ ’’ Cohen remembers the mayor telling him in City Hall. “ ‘I don’t want a dollar store in my town.’ ’’

Curtatone’s hard line and the city’s ultimate refusal to allow Ocean State Job Lot to move in prompted Cohen to sue the city in county court, with the fight becoming a test of the mayor’s effort to reinvent many of Somerville’s tired commercial districts with more modern homes and retail outlets.

Although a Curtatone spokesman denies he ever made the “over my dead body’’ comment, the mayor’s administration has made no secret of its plans to remake huge swaths of the city’s real estate. Curtatone is a chief backer of the effort to rebuild Assembly Square with a massive, mixed-use development, and his planning department has developed detailed blueprints for overhauling many of the city’s shopping districts and neighborhood squares.

Cohen said in his lawsuit that Curtatone repeatedly pushed him to rebuild the property at 299 Broadway, formerly a Star Market, into a mixed-use development with several floors of housing and retail operations on the ground floor. Cohen said that idea is unworkable, especially since it would involve redeveloping adjacent property he doesn’t own.

But after he rebuffed the mayor’s suggestion and inked the lease with Ocean State Job Lot, the city’s planning board refused to provide the special permit he needs to renovate the building and open the new store.

“The mayor says Ocean State does not fit into his plans, but how can he just sit there and allow this property to stay vacant?’’ said Cohen, who is asking the court to invalidate the board’s decision. He said Ocean State Job Lot wants “to come in here and spend $1 million to redo the property and hire 50 to 60 workers.’’

A spokesman for Curtatone said the mayor was not available for comment because he is enrolled in a two-week course at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The spokesman, Michael Meehan, denied the allegations in Cohen’s lawsuit. Meehan said the planning board rejected Ocean State Job Lot because the store did not fit new zoning guidelines the city adopted last year, a process that coincided with the battle over Cohen’s property.

Meanwhile, Ocean State Job Lot said the city’s refusal felt like a slap at the company. “We certainly did not feel welcomed into Somerville by the mayor,’’ said chief financial officer John Conforti. The company, with 40 stores in Massachusetts, would still move into 299 Broadway if Cohen wins his fight, he added.

The city’s new zoning guidelines for Winter Hill reflect the kind of changes Curtatone wants to see across Somerville. Currently, the area is a dilapidated throwback to the 1970s, with Broadway populated by a haphazard mix of sub shops, hair salons, and liquor stores.

To return vibrant street life to the neighborhood, the city wants to limit development to dense blocks of residences, offices, and smaller retail stores that would discourage sprawling, plaza-like properties with vast surface parking lots.

In rejecting Cohen’s Ocean State Job Lot proposal, the city’s zoning board wrote in August 2010 that it was inconsistent with the city’s guidelines and would “limit the ability to bring new amenities to the Winter Hill neighborhood.’’

Monica Lamboy, Curtatone’s chief of planning, said the neighborhood is poised for dramatic changes over the coming years.

The Assembly Square project, for example, will add a new Orange Line stop near the base of Winter Hill and will result in construction of a new mini-city of homes, stores, a cinema, offices, and hotels. “The mayor wants dynamic, transit-oriented neighborhoods where there are employment and housing opportunities, and great paths and open spaces, ’’ Lamboy said. “The idea is to support our existing neighborhoods and transform the areas that have been left behind.’’

Among the anchors of the new Assembly Square: popular Swedish furniture retailer IKEA, whose store opening several years ago in Stoughton generated huge crowds and long lines of traffic.

Cohen said, however, that the project is moving slowly, and the city is trying to force him to buy into a renaissance that is not materializing. “They’ve restricted any other use than the development they want,’’ he said. “I own the property, and I can’t do anything with it.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.