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Brookline residents puzzled as prime storefronts languish

Lawyer says he’s helping ill-prepared owners launch a turnaround

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / June 23, 2011

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Brookline resident Jean Stringham often walks by a strip of vacant storefronts on the edge of the otherwise vibrant Coolidge Corner and asks herself, “Why is this allowed to look so bad?’’

The decaying 42,000-square-foot building has seven street-level storefronts — five of them empty. A sushi restaurant moved out months ago, leaving menus taped to the windows, debris on the floor, and soy sauce on the counter. Washers and dryers in an old laundry two doors down can be seen through a dusty window.

The degradation of the 1920s building — valued by the town at $4.1 million and a prime spot for redevelopment — has been a years-long headache for neighbors and town officials. But until now, its owners, Gladys Goldstein Vinograd and Joseph Vinograd, have been stubbornly resistant to change.

The couple could not be reached for comment for this story. But their attorney, Albert Kramer, told residents at a Town Hall meeting Tuesday that improvements are finally on the way. Kramer — who spoke by speaker phone during the meeting — said he will soon take steps to clean up the building and is talking with several developers about major upgrades. He said the owners, who inherited the property years ago, lack business acumen.

“We will improve the aesthetics of the property, we will have full tenancy, and we will generate better revenues for the people who own it,’’ said Kramer, a retired Quincy District Court judge, who used to live in Brookline. “I am now working at it. I’m dedicated to help.’’

The property — known as Durgin Garage — is a rarity in Brookline, where empty storefronts usually don’t stay that way for long and the median single-family home price tops $1 million. Despite the building’s condition, the landlords have paid their taxes and generally addressed public health concerns such as trash and broken windows, leaving the town with limited ability to take action, public officials said.

“The building is unsightly, it is a nuisance to the neighborhood,’’ said Jeff Levine, Brookline’s planning director. But, he added, “There is no law they have to rent spaces to tenants or make the building attractive.’’

The garage was designed in 1926 to provide long-term parking for nearby residents and is one of the town’s last intact garages built during that era, said Greer Hardwicke, the town’s preservation planner. It currently houses an auto body shop in the back of the building located at the tip of Pleasant Street, a busy thoroughfare that flows into Beacon Street.

The property has been under-used for decades, but residents worry the situation is getting worse. The only two occupied storefronts are home to an Israeli restaurant and a convenience store specializing in lottery tickets. In March, an afternoon armed robbery at the store prompted some to fear the rundown edifice is attracting criminals to the generally safe and well-kept neighborhood.

Other communities face similar situations — unattractive properties in high-visibility areas, owned by people who aren’t interested in fixing them up, or can’t afford to do so. Some owners, like the Vinograds, lack business skills. Other properties pass into the hands of family members with differing views about how to manage them, so the buildings stagnate.

In Cambridge, for example, residents have been irked for decades by the abandoned Faces nightclub on Route 2 — one of the first structures travelers see when entering the city from that direction. Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, said there are finally plans to raze the old club to make room for housing. It has taken so long, he said, partly because the family that owned property disagreed on its use.

“It’s a challenge. As long as it is a structure that is not endangering the public there is not much you can do about it,’’ said Murphy. “One of the features of private land ownership is that private landowners get to decide to do with their property, subject to zoning.’’

In Brookline, officials said small entrepreneurs and larger developers have over the years expressed interest in Durgin Garage. David Begelfer, chief executive of the local commercial real estate development association NAIOP Massachusetts, said that in the 1980s he made a failed attempt to talk to the owners about redevelopment of the site. The family patriarch, pharmacist Morris Goldstein, died in 1982, according to public records.

“It is rare that a property that is as valuable as this has been held and maintained in this condition for this long,’’ he said. “There is no lack of interest, money, ideas.’’

Like many neighborhood residents, Begelfer wonders why the owners have failed to sell or improve Durgin Garage, and he questions whether they are receiving sound financial advice.

“I would say this is not a good investment for you, someone is not representing you well by allowing this property to be maintained in this condition,’’ Begelfer said. “There is something wrong here.’’

In addition to Durgin Garage, Goldstein Vinograd inherited her family home, a nearby three-bedroom Colonial with an assessed value of $821,500. The property is empty and rundown. The owners were recently cited by the town for health and safety violations at the address, including waste in the driveway and yard and damaged front steps. A rusty Buick parked out front is filled with trash.

Yet taxes on both properties — a total of nearly $85,000 in 2011 — are up to date, according to town officials.

Kramer told residents at the community meeting on Tuesday that Joseph Vinograd is a good and “charitable’’ man. “They are just a husband and wife,’’ he said. “They did not know how to deal with these problems.’’

He said he was approached by the couple several months ago to deal with the Durgin Garage vacancies, address town concerns, and boost their income. Kramer said he helped them find tenants about 10 years ago, but lost contact with the Vinograds. They and the public have the same goal, he said: to create a productive and revenue-generating commercial space.

Stringham, 65, who lives near Coolidge Corner and is a Town Meeting member, said she left the community session Tuesday with renewed hope that something will be done. But others, including Eunice White, remain skeptical. “I’d like to see what happens in four months,’’ White said. “Until that happens, I have total reservations.’’

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com@globe.com.