Job Lot CEO meets with Winter Hill residents

by Tom Nash on August 18, 2010

299 Broadway has been vacant since 2007.

The CEO of Ocean State Job Lot laid out his frustration with city officials at an Aug. 17 community meeting held to make the case for the bargain store as a valuable addition to Winter Hill.

Round one did not go well for the prospective tenant and landlord. The Somerville News reported that the first meeting saw some residents walk out after seeing Somerville misspelled in a Powerpoint presentation, leaving tensions high.

Attendees who spoke Tuesday night were evenly divided as to whether the former Star Market site at 299 Broadway, vacant since 2007, should be occupied by a chain store that bills itself as “selling brand-name merchandise at closeout prices.” The chain has 97 locations, 41 of which are in Massachusetts.

Job Lot CEO Marc Perlman did not mince words when describing his reception by the city so far. Recounting his first meeting with Mayor Joseph Curtatone, he said, “We were informed we really weren’t welcome. I didn’t want to have a big fight, so we left.”

The city soon placed a moratorium on development in the area, and began re-working the zoning to be more pedestrian oriented to prepare for the coming of the Green Line through the Broadway corridor. The re-zoning was approved in February.

Property owner Jim Cohen said he reached out to more than 22 supermarkets in the intervening months, after learning Curtatone wanted to see another grocery store there.

“The city offered to find us a tenant,” Cohen said. “We didn’t get one call back.”

When no other possibilities for the 27,000 square foot space emerged, Perlman said Job Lot again went to the city, only to find they now needed a special permit to grant a change of use from supermarket to retail store.

“They chose to move the goal post on us,” Perlman said. “In 33 years, in an awful lot of towns, we’ve never seen anyone change zoning after the fact.”

How residents reacted to Perlman’s account of the city’s actions depended largely on how they felt about Job Lot, or whether they can stand having the lot sit empty any longer.

Abutters spoke of people congregating in the large parking lot in front of the store at night, where sex, drug use and other illegal activity is common. Robert Allen, Cohen’s attorney, said finally having a tenant would solve those issues.

“It will no longer be weed-filled, (with) people hanging out, doing unimaginable things,” Allen said.

Addressing what he said were “frequent comments” in blogs and newspapers asking why specialty supermarket Trader Joe’s hasn’t been courted, Allen stressed the company isn’t interested, and that “Ocean State really believes this is the right community for them.”

About half of the residents who spoke oppose the store moving in, noting Winter Hill lacks access to fresh food and that the land could be used more effectively. Others worried about the traffic that would be attracted by the store.

An online petition opposing the possible change in use that would allow a retail store has gathered more than 200 signatures so far.

Others, however, maintained Broadway needs to take the opportunity while it still can.

“It’s really about us believing we have a better option, and we don’t have that option,” Winter Hill resident Walter Mannix said of the opposition. “If anybody thought Trader Joe’s was interested, do you believe in Santa Claus? They ain’t coming.”

Perlman handled most of the questions, and criticisms of the cleanliness of other Job Lot stores, himself. He noted a Medford location is also in the works, which he said should dispel traffic concerns.

“I’d be be very surprised if were accepted in the building and people said we did a bad job,” Perlman said. “We’re going to be here for 25 years.”

Alderman-at-Large Bill White noted that length of time could be the most serious problem presented by Job Lot moving in. Aside from taking exception to Perlman’s assertion that the re-zoning was targeted, White also noted the 10-year lease Job Lot plans on signing could hamper future development in the area once the Green Line arrives.

“We spent a large amount of money making economic development plans for the city,” White said. “I don’t think anyone would want your site to lie fallow, but we’re looking toward the future of our city.”

The special permit process required for Job Lot to proceed will begin Aug. 24, with a City Hall hearing scheduled before the Planning Board at 6 p.m.

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