John Powers remembers when Wonderland Greyhound Park was a big draw, packing in gamblers — and their cars — from across the region. Powers, a longtime Revere city councilor, would sneak into the park to make a quick buck when he was young.
“I used to go down there at night and get old programs and resell them,” Powers said with a laugh. “I was constantly chased away by the police.”
Cars still fill Wonderland’s parking lots on the VFW Parkway, but dogs haven’t circled the track since 2010, after voters banned greyhound racing in the state. But now the rotting clubhouse is surrounded by hundreds of vehicles stored there by rental companies because of the proximity to Logan Airport.
Powers is among those who think they’re parking illegally.
“The number of cars there has increased tremendously,” he said. “I mean, you look at that property now, you’d think you were at Gillette Stadium. I think the time for patience and delay on this property has come and gone.”
The property’s owners, CBW Lending, need both a license and a special permit to legally park 750 cars at the site. In return, CBW agreed to pay Revere $18,500 per year, according to Powers, who said the payment has not been received this year.
The special permit came with a “sunset” provision that it would expire in 2015. Without that permit, the city’s licensing board declined to reissue the license, according to the City Council’s president, Robert Haas.
“We could legally have those cars towed. We don’t want to do that,” Haas said.
Jim Cipoletta, an attorney who represents Wonderland’s owners, said it’s the sunset clause that’s causing the dispute. At a City Council meeting in May, he said CBW believes such provisions aren’t enforceable under state law.
“It’s a very gray area whether a special permit can be given with a definitive end date,” he said after the meeting. “Our research indicates that in order for a permit to expire, they have to vote to rescind the permit.”
Cipoletta said the crush of cars this spring is due to bad timing. He said some come from Avis, which has used the empty lot to hold new cars each year as it replaces older vehicles. Other cars are from Thrifty, which uses the lot for overflow parking.
“This particular year, everything seemed to happen at the same time,” Cipoletta said. “Avis delivered the new fleet, and the vacation for Massachusetts and New Hampshire schools [in April] happened on the same week.”
In March, Mayor Brian Arrigo announced a sale of the property was imminent. But two prospective buyers walked away in the past year, Cipoletta said. In June, CBW Lending obtained a permit to demolish the crumbling clubhouse and support structures.
Powers, who represents the neighborhood, said he receives constant complaints about the beeping of trucks as they back in and out of the lot. Cars are parked on the grass near the edge of the 38-acre property. Workers often resort to pressing the panic button on key fobs, setting off a car’s alarm in order to locate it in the sea of vehicles.
“They come in all hours night and day,” Powers said. “Those tractor trailers are coming in day and night, and that can be an annoyance.”
The owners are “taking in all kind of money down there. They’re sitting on a blighted property, which is a public health hazard. They’re bringing all kinds of traffic into the city. And they’re disturbing the neighborhood late at night, with car alarms going off and cars beeping.”
For more than half a century, Jerry McKinley has lived on Shawmut Street, sharing a property line with Wonderland. To his eyes, there are more cars now than when dogs still circled the track. Vehicles are routinely left next to his house, he said.
“They just started parking there,” he said. “They didn’t ask us what we thought. There’s got to be a 1,000 or more cars. And they could care less.”
With those cars came the noise, heard from his upstairs windows at night.
“You’re talking 3, 4 in the morning, they’re moving the cars,” he said. “We’re worried about fires. They park them on the grass with the hot mufflers.”
McKinley offered a simple solution.
“Stop parking there,” he said. “And do something more with that land than a hotel or something like that.”
The City Council approved a motion last month ordering Arrigo to begin removing cars from the lot.
In a written statement, Arrigo said he was working with Wonderland’s owners to address issues at the site. Representatives of Wonderland will meet with city officials by the end of the month.
“The owners have been made aware of the quality of life issues that the neighborhood around that property is facing regularly,” Arrigo wrote in his statement. “They will either have to reapply for the proper permits or terminate the parking operation forthwith.”
To Haas, the dilapidated buildings and unending rows of cars send the wrong signal to people who pass through the beach town.
“People from the North Shore drive through Revere and see that, and they say, ‘What the hell is going on over there?’ ” he said. “It’s a joke. It seriously is.”