Hotel approval process leaves unanswered questions

by Tom Nash on January 20, 2010

[This story by Tom Nash originally appeared in The Somerville News, January 20, 2010]

City officials admitted this week a special permit application for a contentious hotel project nearing final approval is missing basic information about the developer’s identity and lacks any mention of the property’s lingering environmental issues.

While the city says the omissions will not hinder the project’s progress before the Zoning Board of Appeals, which meets tonight, a recently organized advocacy group, Somerville Residents for Sensible Development, says it should.

Among a group of ordinances the group submitted to the Board of Aldermen last week is a measure calling for full disclosure of those involved in a development, to keep city officials from hiding their identities while profiting from projects they have a stake in.

In the case of 371 Beacon St., a 35-room hotel and restaurant proposal which has been opposed by neighbors for more than a year, no city officials appear involved. But exactly who is responsible for or benefiting from the possible development remains unclear; the application lacks a signature from any party.

City officials maintain that it doesn’t matter.


Dream City

The confusion regarding who wants a 35-room hotel at the notoriously congested, and valuable, corner of Somerville Avenue and Beacon Street begins on the first line of the application.

Under the applicant’s name, “Dream City Real Estate” is scribbled under “Beacon Street Hotel.” The former is owned by real estate agent Katherine Ferrari, while the latter does not appear to exist as a business entity at all.

The address given for the real estate company’s office is 371 Beacon St., home only to an abandoned gas station.

Ferrari has never appeared at community meetings about the hotel project, of which there have been four in the past year. Richard DiGirolamo, the project’s attorney, denies she has any involvement.

Instead, the applicant has been presented to residents as George Makrigiannis, owner of the property. Makrigannis, who will turn 93 in February, is usually represented by his son, Louis.

Neither of the Makrigiannis’s nor Ferrari responded to requests for comment.

The city, for its part, has actively championed the hotel and restaurant over residents’ objections as a way to siphon money from booming Porter Square, most of which is in Cambridge.

“The square really has turned its back on the city of Somerville,” Director of Economic Development Rob May said at the Jan. 6 ZBA meeting. “Porter Square isn’t all about Cambridge.”

Asked whether the city was aware it was supporting a development applied for by a company with a non-existent office and no connection to the project, Monica Lamboy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Development, said it doesn’t matter.

“It’s not a liquor license,” Lamboy said. “We’re not evaluating the applicant, we’re evaluating the project.”

The liquor licenses issued by the city are tightly controlled, with any possible sale closely scrutinized. Felons are not allowed to obtain them.

“We haven’t been uncomfortable with (the application) to date,” Lamboy added.

Both Lamboy and new Director of Planning George Proakis stressed who the applicant is has nothing to do with evaluating the application, but one former tenant of Makrigiannis felt compelled to let the city know who they are dealing with anyway.

The 92-year-old fugitive

David Levy, who once rented a Cambridge apartment Makrigiannis owns, wrote an e-mail to the city in December about his experience.

Makrigiannis, Levy explained, had ripped off the security deposit for the apartment he rented in Central Square.

“I want you to know that based on my experience and a similar experience of a friend in another unit, the Makrigiannis’s cannot be trusted as partners to furthering development and growth in your city,” Levy wrote.

Levy’s concern is shared by seven tenants who sued Makrigannis for withholding security deposits in three years. He lost each case that went before the judge, with one dismissed and a new case scheduled to be heard on Jan. 28.

In November 2008, the Cambridge District Court issued a capias warrant to bring George Makrigiannis before a judge.

At the Jan. 6 ZBA meeting, former tenant Adam Rosenfield sat in the audience. He said later he wanted to see what his former landlord was up to the day before he was scheduled to appear at a small claims hearing Rosenfield had requested.

Makrigiannis didn’t show up, and Rosenfield was awarded his money back by default.

“It infuriates me,” Rosenfield said of the prospect of the Makrigiannis’s building a hotel. “He skirts the laws. It’s just been a nightmare with these people.”

Makrigiannis, whose restaurant business credentials have been frequently cited by attorney DiGirolamo, also lost a lawsuit against the restaurant he owns in Cambridge, Pizza Ring. In 2008, a judge ruled Makrigiannis owed one of his suppliers more than $9,000 for missed ingredient delivery payments.


Pizza Ring, the restaurant operated by the owner of 371 Beacon St. ~Photo by Tom Nash

DiGirolamo said he was unaware of any legal action taken against Makrigiannis.

None of this, city spokesman Tom Champion said, is fair game for consideration by the Planning Board or Zoning Board.

“(The legal issues) are not something we were aware of, because it’s not permissible to look into,” Champion said.

‘We don’t know what the city knows’

Seth Goodman, who has led a group of neighbors opposed to hotel development on the grounds that the neighborhood is already too congested with traffic, said he had been unaware of Makrigannis’s legal history.

Especially concerning, he said, was that the family is being touted as accomplished restaurateurs.

“It raises a lot of questions about their viability as good stewards of the project and other areas,” he said. “The little I’ve heard doesn’t fit the picture that they’re painting. It raises doubts.”

Goodman said he was unsure why the city was unaware of the issues.

“I don’t know what the city’s obligation is,” he said. “If some of this info that’s come to light is easily accessible to anybody, it seems to me the city … hasn’t done any due diligence to vet these developers.”

“We don’t know what the city knows,” Goodman added.

Based on the application, the city never has had any contact information for Makrigiannis. His address is listed as a post office box. Phone numbers for both Makrigiannis and Dream City Real Estate are absent, despite being required by a current city ordinance.

Lamboy said the city does know where to find DiGirolamo, but, “that doesn’t absolve him of making sure the owner’s name and number is there.”

The omissions extend beyond contact information, which is required. The former gas station that would be demolished to make way for the hotel requires oversight by the Department of Environmental Protection. The fact that underground tanks of hundreds of gallons of oil needed to be removed is not included anywhere in the application.

The group of residents Goodman leads raised the issue at a community meeting held last year. Since then, Louis Makrigiannis has filed DEP reports stating 310 gallons have been removed so far.

Lamboy said disclosure of such information to the city isn’t required, since it is regulated by the state.

“Some of the more thorough applicants will go ahead and do that,” Lamboy said. “I’m sure they don’t want to muddy the jurisdiction.”

Environmental remediation was, however, a condition set forth by the Planning Board when it granted approval for the project’s special permit.

The vote

Meanwhile, the ZBA will base tonight’s possible decision on whether to approve the project’s special permit on an incomplete application. In addition to the Planning Board recommendation, site drawings and questions posed to DiGirolamo, the board will also hear public testimony.

Somerville Residents for Sensible Development maintains the hearing portions are “theatrical productions,” according to a letter they sent to the Board of Aldermen with their proposed ordinances.

The ordinances, which would transfer special permit application decisions to the Board of Aldermen and force all parties involved in a project to be named accurately, met a chilly response from the board at its Jan
. 15 meeting.

Goodman said he will be watching the progress of the ordinances, but is too new to the process to judge whether his own efforts will sway the ZBA.

“If the rules are the application needs to be complete, the obvious question is why isn’t it?” Goodman said. “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?”

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