Another big corporation has been dumped into the Mystic River. This one may never become a Clint Eastwood movie, but it’s every bit as dramatic. In Somerville, Massachusetts, it took local residents five years, but they brought down Home Depot this week. The giant retailer’s plans to build a 173,435 s.f. store on the east side of Somerville in a dead mall across the highway from an existing Home Depot, is now history. The Assembly Square project has been dis-assembled because of strong community opposition. “We had a plan that accomplished just about everything anyone would have wanted to revitalize the mall,” an obviously bitter Home Depot spokesman told The Boston Globe. “But we were dealing with an intransigent opposition that was repulsed by the idea of compromise. How can you deal with people like that? We washed our hands of it.” The Mystic View Task Force (MVTF), a community group that has opposed the plan since 1999, filed a lawsuit against Home Depot charging that the plan violated city zoning regulations. The MVTF preferred a village-scale development with small stores along the waterfront, and even advanced its own alternative with detailed drawings and site plans. Home Depot complained that abuttors have the right to legally challenge the big corporation. “A handful of people are able to ties things up in court,” the Home Depot spokesman complained. “I guess that’s the way the system works in Massachusetts — you can take things to court and hold them up indefinitely.” But the MVTF didn’t buy Home Depot’s version. “The simple truth is that Home Depot’s developers refused to obey the zoning ordinance requiring them to fix the environmental impacts of the project, including traffic and pollution,” William Shelton from MVTF told the Globe. “All we did was pursue enforcement of that law — something the city refused to do — and the court agreed with us.” Once the Somerville Planning Board OK’d the project, the citizens had to go to court. A judge in Middlesex Superior Court ruled that the Planning Board had, in fact, failed to conduct a thorough review of the Home Depot’s traffic and environmental impacts. The city and the developer then appealed the Superior Court decision, and the case has not yet come to trial. The MVTF has also appealed a proposal from Swedish furniture giant IKEA. During this time period, politics also played a role in this development. Somerville has a new Mayor who is less enthusiastic about the Home Depot project. The developer told the Globe, “The new mayor doesn’t want Home Depot, and the proposed zoning would preclude a store of that size.” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone has promoted new zoning regulations that limit the number of big box stores and require a mix of uses along Main Street. “I don’t want just retail; I want to see offices, housing, and access to the waterfront,” the Mayor told the Globe. With Home Depot gone, the developer now wants a Christmas Tree Shop and Linens ‘n Things, offices, and 200 condominiums — but local residents see little improvement in the plan. “The problem with their plan is that it still relies on a sea of parking lots, generates too much traffic, and no one will want to build a class A office building next to giant stores,” Shelton explained.
The Mystic View Task Force has won the battle against Home Depot, but the war is still on-going in Somerville, a Boston neighbor. The IKEA plan is even bigger than Home Depot, but residents have raised funds to pursue their rights in court when the city proved incapable of defending its own citizens. I spoke to the MVTF almost two years ago, and it was clear that this group was, as Home Depot said, ‘intransigent’, because neither the developer nor Home Depot ever offered a serious alternative. As far as Home Depot’s whining about the right to use the First Amendment, since when were big corporations reluctant to go to court when they feel harmed? Once more Big Orange goes down to defeat, but they have one consolation: they still have their 145,000 s.f. store just across Route 93. For earlier background on this story, search Newsflash by “Somerville.”