Walking past the shuttered Veterans of Foreign Wars Dilboy Post (371 Summer St.) one evening, neighbors of Summer Street resident Tom Bok spotted his name on a sign hanging from the parking lot fence. It called for Bok to spend time in the brig, and listed his home address.
Bok has become the reluctant de facto spokesperson for neighbors who have fought for three years to stop a project that would give the veterans a new post and bail out a developer who has struggled for a decade to construct a condo building that would overshadow the neighborhood.
The Post was ordered closed last November. The condo project was approved a month later. In February, the Dilboy was struggling with yet another ordered closure as the plans for their new post sit in legal limbo.
Bok said the sign bearing his name marked a low point in what has become viewed as a conflict between veterans and residents. “It’s threatening to have your name and address posted on someone’s house who’s pissed off at you,” he said.
Where patriotism meets condos
Bok is one of several neighbors who have stood against the prospective developer, Roberto Arista. Since the initial condo proposal in 2001, residents have maintained the scope of the plans have been too large for a neighborhood characterized by single- and two-family homes.
Three lawsuits, from residents and Arista, followed. In 2009, Arista altered course. He offered to build the Dilboy a new home if the Post would lease its land to provide space for a combination Post-condo development. This would bring the project away from its original footprint in the neighborhood, which had been re-zoned by the Board of Aldermen in an attempt to block the development.
“This [Post] has become antiquated for their needs and would need serious refurbishing,” Arista’s attorney Richard DiGirolamo said during the first meeting with neighbors and Post members at the Dilboy. Pointing at a brightly colored artist’s rendering, he added, “This would be their new home.”
Wrapping the condo project in with a VFW Post only added to neighbors’ concerns. From that point on, VFW members and neighbors were put at odds.
While none of the neighbors has ever publicly said they were against a new Dilboy Post – many said they supported one in theory – their opposition to plans of a 29-unit, three-story condo also meant opposition to the new VFW Post by default.
Three years ago, the neighbors didn’t know Zoning Board chairman Herbert Foster’s father had survived Pearl Harbor and joined the Dilboy upon arriving home from the war. Nor did they know city officials would let several required environmental reports and payments for zoning applications slide, or that the state would eventually define the Dilboy as a firetrap.
The more the neighbors learned, the worse things became for the Dilboy. And the worse things got for the Dilboy, the more likely it seemed the condo project would be approved.
In the wake of the Post-condo deal, neighbors began researching Arista’s history inside and outside of Somerville. What they found did not bode well. Arista had built five developments in Somerville, using a variety of subcontractors. Two developments wound up in litigation stemming from alleged construction flaws. A project he started in Rhode Island was completed under bank ownership after city inspectors refused for years to give needed sign-offs on the work. (Arista blames the bankruptcy on the recession.) And, residents found, necessary environmental reports pertinent to the condo project were not submitted to the city.
Somerville Planning Director George Proakis said he understands why neighbors would be concerned. But the Zoning Board isn’t a historical commission, and he said it would be unfair and illegal to judge developers on past work.
“Zoning doesn’t consider (those issues),” he said. “At the end of the day, what counts is the quality of the plans in front of us. It’s up to the city to make sure what gets built meets these plans and building codes.”
At a June ZBA hearing, Post Commander Bob Hardy responded to the back and forth by laying out the stakes. “[The Post] cannot exist in our current state,” he said. “Without this current project, there is no future for the George Dilboy Post. The Post will close.”
Blowing the whistle, and blowing back
As Arista’s past and the City’s attitude toward the developer faced more scrutiny from neighbors, even more questions arose. Certain activities, such as allegedly renting out parking without reporting the income and hosting events without an entertainment license, raised questions about their ability to even enter into a real estate agreement with Arista in the first place.mum
In September, the acrimony that had been brewing between the Post members and neighbors boiled over. Calls were made to federal and state officials asking whether they knew the Post wasn’t up to fire code. In the aftermath of a 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people, Massachusetts began requiring clubs of a certain capacity to install sprinkler systems. Instead of forcing the Dilboy to comply, the city allowed it to skirt the law for seven years, until state officials began dropping by.
The veterans pushed back. Retired attorney Ed Brady spoke out against the neighbors’ opposition at a ZBA hearing, later sending cease and desist letters to the most vocal neighbors. Residents also accused Brady of taking down license plate numbers around the neighborhood.
In an email, Brady said residents’ whistle-blowing constituted abuse. “Public participation does not condone these nefarious activities,” he said. “Any alleged code non-conformities were not crimes.”
As for the accusation of stalking neighbors, he said the sighting was misconstrued. He said he walked down Hawthorne Street taking notes. Among those notes was the number of American flags on display. Brady counted 10, which he said showed “the opponents to the new proposed Dilboy Post complex did not speak for all the abutters and neighbors.”
Bok said he didn’t understand that logic. “I don’t really see any connection between flying an American flag and taking sides on this particular issue,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as simple as saying people who are flying American flag are standing with the Dilboy.”
In November, the Post had attempted to reduce its occupancy by putting up a wall between the basement and function hall. One message scrawled on the cinderblock read, “Go Dilboy Forever Will Never Die.”
Days later, the Post was ordered closed.
‘Vote for us’
Dec. 7, 2011 was the final ZBA hearing before bringing the project to a vote. It was also the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Just before the meeting began, DiGirolamo handed over a check to pay for Arista’s most recent applications, which City officials admitted they had allowed him to not pay. Residents considered this added ammunition to their testimony that the project was too large and that the City had slanted the process in the developer’s favor.
Several people expressed support for the project. They spoke to the debt they owed the Post for nearly a century serving the city. Following a presentation of a proposed cast-metal veterans memorial that would be built alongside the new Dilboy, supporters cited patriotism as reason to approve the project with one simply pleading, “Vote for us.”
Testimony either way seemed even. But absent from all but a few testifying in favor was support for the 29-unit condo development, a fact noted by board member Danielle Evans, who broke down when explaining her vote against the project.
“This whole process has been the most depressing thing ever,” Evans said. “I’ve seen the neighborhood torn apart and I hate it.”
Just before the 4-1 vote in favor of the proposal, Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz asked the board to slow down. “It’s time to ask the hard questions,” she said. “This is only going to tear the neighborhood further apart.”
Foster, though, didn’t conceal his frustration as he explained his father’s history with the Dilboy and the effects of the shutdown. “I’m proud to vote for the veterans,” he said.
“Their post is closed now because someone felt the need to call the fire marshal,” Foster added. “This is the only way they’re going to get a new post.”
A new appeal
A few weeks later, residents who had previously fought the development in court filed two separate appeals to the ruling. Both appeals are based largely on two concerns of the neighbors: what they consider an erroneous interpretation of the zoning regulations that allow for the combined use, what they say is apparent favoritism shown to the VFW by the City.
“The Zoning Board has turned into a veterans commission,” neighbor George O’Shea said after the vote. “They’re just looking at how to serve the Post. The zoning was not a part of the decision, and the only people who brought zoning into the argument were the people who voted against it.”
Meanwhile, the Dilboy continues to struggle with state regulators. In January, the state suspended the Post’s liquor license. How the Post will navigate the liquor license situation and fire code issues remains as unclear as the future of the condo project.
One recent morning, Dilboy Post member Ron Patalano cracked open the door of the closed club. He deflected questions, saying that no one is sure when the Post will reopen. On Hawthorne Street, the same street Brady studied a few months earlier, only one house was flying an American flag.