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Junkyard turns to gold in Somerville development boom

Neil Nissenbaum moved among the shelves of parts. Nissenbaum’s Auto Recycling Centers is closing shop.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

SOMERVILLE — It’s been more than a century since Jacob Nissenbaum, a Jewish immigrant who fled the repressions of czarist Russia, drove a horse and buggy as he collected rags and paper in Somerville and Cambridge.

The family name still adorns the business he started, which has morphed into a 4-acre graveyard for hundreds of used and abandoned cars near Union Square, a place where his two great-grandsons and a great-great-grandson have stripped and sold any part that a cost-conscious customer needs.

Suspensions, cylinder heads, mirrors, fenders, steering columns — they’re all here, stacked row upon row in dim storage rooms. But they’re about to vanish along with this unvarnished slice of Somerville that’s being transformed by the Green Line Extension and a boom in biotech development.

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The Nissenbaums are calling it quits, and how could they not? The family has agreed to sell their parcel off Columbia and Windsor streets for approximately $150 million to a group that plans to bring biotech labs, residential units, and green space here, according to development sources with knowledge of the deal.

“The stars have aligned,” said Neil Nissenbaum, 57. “It’s great that we’re in the spot we’re in now, but it’s sad, too.”

Neil works alongside his 83-year-old father, Joseph, and 78-year-old uncle, Allen. The Nissenbaums have only two other employees, and taking apart cars can be long, tough, and physical. They never closed during the Blizzard of ‘78, and the six-day weeks that stretch back generations have been altered only by COVID-19, which shut them down for a month and a half.

Crushed cars awaited shipment to a shredder. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Now, approaching the finish line with a deal that could close by the end of the year, they’ve pared back to five days a week.

“It’s a family business. You do whatever needs to be done,” said Neil Nissenbaum, who walked the lot recently dressed like a mechanic, wearing a blue shirt and name tag, with a large set of keys dangling from his belt.

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The Nissenbaums have reached an agreement with DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners and Leggat McCall Properties. The property is scheduled to be part of the Boynton Yards project, which opened a nine-story building nearby in May, the first of four buildings planned for the life sciences.

The Nissenbaum lot “is a critical parcel to unlock the full development potential of the city’s SomerVision plan,” said Pamela Jonah, spokesperson for the Boynton Yards team.

The SomerVision process, which began in 2010, seeks to engage stakeholders across the city in vetting ideas for what the Somerville of 2040 should look like. With the Green Line now extended to Union Square, and projects such as Boynton Yards underway, those changes are expected to be big and broad.

Neil Nissenbaum laughed in the room where radiators were pressure tested.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Boynton Yards “is a pretty key piece of the implementation,” said George Proakis, the city’s director of strategic planning and community development. “It’s a neighborhood that we’ve been eyeing as a redevelopment site around the Green Line for over a decade.”

Still, some residents are concerned that they’ll be pushed out by an influx of newcomers that the Green Line could bring. Rents are increasing, for example, as older apartment buildings are being bought in and near Union Square.

It’s a rapidly changing dynamic that landed on Nissenbaum’s doorstep. Proakis recalled walking into the business as a Northeastern University student in the 1990s, asking whether they had a taillight for his 1984 Ford LTD station wagon, the car he drove to his co-op jobs.

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“They’re really good at what they do,” Proakis said. “This is a transformational moment. Most of the parcels in that neighborhood have been owned by the same families for more than a century.”

Nissenbaum’s has been operating since 1910, a time when slaughterhouses took up much of the space behind the current building. The business expanded into that area, a now-dusty site where a small army of rusted and dented cars have been scavenged for parts.

“We Buy Junk,” a sign in front of the office says. Behind the building, at the far end of the property, crushed cars sit in accordion-like piles, waiting to be delivered to a shredder.

Keys for almost every car on the lot hung in the office.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“We have just about everything,” Joseph Nissenbaum said. “And 200,000 years later, I’m still here.”

In addition to selling scrap parts, Neil said, the company offers its banged-up cars and expansive lot for movies and TV shows.

He pointed to a car that had a cameo in “Spenser for Hire,” talked about the day Cameron Diaz filmed here for “Knight and Day,” and showed off a photo of himself and the actor Kevin James from the movie “Zookeeper,” which used Nissenbaum’s as a backdrop.

It’s been quite the ride, even though the wheels have been pulled off countless cars here.

Allen Nissenbaum recalled his father working six long days a week, and taking only two or three sick days over 50 years.

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“I never knew him to say, I have a cold or my back hurts,” Allen said. “He always went to work. That was old school.”

Allen said he hasn’t given much thought to how the financial windfall will change his life, and what he’ll do with his newfound time. For now, he’s still at the office by 6 a.m., checking off the business boxes in a work routine that began in 1966.

“We’re tired, we’re old, and we’re creatures of habit,” Allen said with a smile. “I told my wife I might go on that show, ‘The Bachelor.’ ”

The family put the property on the market in December 2020, following lengthy discussions and years of watching how the neighborhood might change, the Nissenbaums said. Finally, the time seemed right.

Another factor, they said, is that demand for car parts has fallen off, particularly in a longtime blue-collar city that has seen more and more gentrification.

Not many years ago, Allen said, “everyone in Somerville had a used car. Who lives here now? People who ride a bicycle and drink latte. None of that group needs us.”

The Nissenbaums know their family history well, and they relate it with pride. They’re also realists, and they figure that the business will fade from most people’s memories after the new Somerville rises there.

“The name has been out front for 112 years. But when people drive down the street in five years, they won’t know we were here,” Allen said.

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“This has been a long ride. We’re good.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.