It was on July 8 last year that a basement electrical fire closed DeLuca’s Market, the grocery store that Beacon Hillers have loved or hated, sometimes at the same time, for more than 100 years.
The market is still not open, and Virgil Aiello, whose uncle started the market and who owns it now with his brother, says it has been a frustrating year.
“Hard isn’t the word for it,” said Aiello. “This has been ridiculous. I need help at the building department, and I’m not getting it.”
Aiello began repairs by August of last year, but the rebuilding of the market, which occupies all or parts of the ground floors and basements of 7, 11, 15 and 17 Charles Street, is mostly unfinished. Apartments on the upper floors of 7 and 15 Charles have been redone, but aren’t yet occupied because of slow approval of critical electrical work, he said. Last week the Inspectional Services Department issued an approval, so now NStar can hook up its service.
But the market space is still mostly raw, with dangling wires, surfaces with holes and work Aiello wants to do still unapproved.
The heart of the problem seems to involve adequate renovation plans, most observers say.
“We want him to succeed,” said City Councilor Mike Ross, who is one of many city officials to whom Aiello has turned for help. “But he can’t succeed at any cost. Virgil is running his construction project in the way he ran DeLuca’s— a friendly neighborhood store that lacked basic professional requirements one needs in 2011.”
Ross said a project of this magnitude requires professional guidance. “The role he is playing as a victim is not working for anyone,” he said. “He needs a plan he can get approved and built.”
Aiello believes, however, he has run a market long enough to know how it should be designed, and has made a sketch of where he wants to install the freezers, salad bar and other equipment.
He has sought architects’ or store designers’ advice only intermittently.
But on July 14, Inspectional Services issued a building code refusal claiming Aiello wasn’t complying with regulations regarding a sprinkler system, enclosure of stairways and egress, items an experienced architect presumably would have addressed.
Aiello believes the building department stalls and gives mixed signals. “They’ve given me permits to do the work, and now they give me a refusal,” he said.
But his troubles are not only with the building department. Neighbors have also made his life miserable, he said, complaining to the mayor’s office and the building department. The city hasn’t helped get a business up and running, he complains, and the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s practices have made it impossible for him to get the space he needs for his store to function properly.
“They are uptight about these issues to an extreme,” he said. “This is just another neighborhood where people have to go along and get along. They lose perspective.”
Specifically, Aiello wants to make four changes, some of which he began before the fire. He wants to excavate a basement for storage under what is now a concrete slab in the middle of the market space. He wants permission to add one 15 by 30 foot addition above a low building at the corner of Branch Street and the alley that runs behind his Charles Street buildings. This upper-story addition would replace a residential space he removed, and he would install a commercial kitchen on the ground floor. Finally, he would combine all four of his buildings into one with the number 7-17 Charles Street with five stores, 13 apartments, and one office. Otherwise, he said, he is putting things back exactly as they were. He said he has the money to carry out these plans.
But the Beacon Hill Civic Association typically opposes expansions in this dense neighborhood. Neighbors would not individually go on the record about their complaints, but they are widely known. Neighbors say that in doing work a couple of years ago on the low building on which Aiello wants to put an upper story, he did not have appropriate permits, and his contractor illegally removed historic brick and installed a steel beam. That work is now covered with a blue tarp, and steel destined for that area lies in the back alley. They also maintain that the proposed kitchen space is not zoned for commercial use, a condition Aiello disputes.
They say Aiello never has firm plans he can show about what he wants to do, and without those plans, they can’t trust what he says.
Moreover, neighbors say DeLuca’s trucks block access to their garages, and that DeLuca’s illegally stores trash in the alley.
At community meetings, these complaints come up frequently, as do complaints about the quality of DeLuca’s produce and dairy products and the cleanliness of the store.
Aiello seems surprised by his neighbors’ attitude, especially because he believes he has provided a service residents have desperately needed.
“There is calumny against DeLuca’s and me personally,” said Aiello. “They are always telling everyone what a bad neighbor I am. It’s too painful for me to talk about.”
With neighbor opposition to many of his proposals and with his entanglements with building department regulations, it is hard to see how the market can open any time soon.
But the impasse could be broken by two Chestnut Street lawyers, Terry Dangle and Russell Gaudreau, who have volunteered to try to work things out so the neighborhood can have a market back.
Dangle has agreed to give Aiello advice on the project. Gaudreau, a member of the civic association’s zoning and licensing committee, has agreed to work with Aiello and Dangle to see if something can be worked out that would satisfy neighbors.
“I see this getting resolved by Virgil presenting a wonderful plan for a new market that will be a little bit expanded so it has greater offerings for the neighborhood and will be attractive,” said Dangle.
Dangle said Aiello must sign and abide by a “good neighbor agreement,” that would give neighbors confidence he will do what he says.
But Dangle also said he expects neighbors to understand that the local merchants need to be profitable and they must accept some inconveniences that come from having convenient services and products nearby.
His timetable is soon. “My wife keeps telling me how much she misses the market,” he said.
Gaudreau also believes there is a chance for resolution. “I asked him to drop the addition, and [Virgil] said it is already off the table,” he said. “Now we have something to work with.”
Gaudreau told Aiello he needs architectural plans in order to proceed, and he thought he had a commitment from Aiello to prepare them. With detailed plans that include matters regulated by code, a kitchen in the space Aiello claims is commercial at 17 Charles might be acceptable, especially if neighbors don’t have to fight an addition.
“If I can get satisfaction, I’ll go to the zoning and licensing committee and be a non-objector to the proposal,” Gaudreau said. The committee cannot “support” plans, but can only “object” or not.
Aiello is of two minds about the situation. He is not certain why he needs a different plan from the one he has sketched. He said he hired architects at one point, and they charged high rates but did nothing helpful. He said he should not be forced to give up his right to apply for an addition, which some have proposed as an exchange for allowing him to build the new kitchen, although he will forgo applying for one now if he can get the store put back together.
He says he will store the trash inside and not put it in the alley.
He compares DeLuca’s condition to the hole in the ground at Filene’s. “You can’t blast a hole in the middle of a neighborhood and expect surrounding businesses to survive,” he said.
“Even if I’m the worst person in the world, it would be good for the neighborhood to have DeLuca’s open,” he said. “The city could care less if this store stayed closed forever. Neighbors who want this store to be open—what can they do?”
He’s tired of the stumbling blocks he’s run into and uncertain how to proceed. “I’m going to hopefully work with Russell Gaudreau and hammer out some reasonable measures to address reasonable concerns,” he said.