Sewer construction project; 290 Highland Ave. (former Quik Mart)
2017: More big decisions & development; Union Square zoning
In this section:
- The whirlwind of change and the challenges ahead
- Real estate development projects in Ward 5
- Union Square zoning
The whirlwind of change and the challenges ahead
As my third year as the Ward 5 Alderman comes to a close, I’m struck by the breathtaking pace of change and new development in Somerville. True, overall, things are going well for the City and the future looks bright. In fact, polling done in October for the new Somerville High School ballot question found that 79.6% of voters said that “things in Somerville are heading in the right direction.” Yet I understand why many long-time Somerville residents are unsettled, angry and worried about the future. Large-scale, rapid change is difficult for most of us. Sometimes I feel like a conservative: I just want to keep our wonderful Somerville the way it is…or the way it was a few years ago. Whether we like it or not, we are in the middle of the transformation of our City. This is happening in livable urban areas all over our nation. We need to manage, shape, and mitigate change, using all the tools at our disposal.
Our City is borrowing a lot of money. Some people believe we are putting our financial future at risk. My view is that we are investing in a better future for ourselves and our children, sacrificing for the future. We have many big capital projects that were put off for decades. We must begin to pay for them now or suffer unpleasant consequences such as flooding, expensive emergency repairs to City buildings, and disruptions to our streets.
In addition to the $130 million that 75% of Somerville voters committed to borrowing by voting yes for a new Somerville High School on November 8 (with another $120 million coming from the State), the Board of Aldermen (BOA) voted on December 8 unanimously to borrow $50 million for the $2.3 billion Green Line Extension (GLX) (funded almost entirely by the Federal and State governments). We have billions of dollars of sewer and water infrastructure that we need to replace or build over the next 20-30 years. We’ll also need to renovate or replace many of our public buildings including the Public Safety Building, the libraries, and City Hall. (Thankfully, most of our schools are in good shape.) The good news is that the City won’t actually bond for these projects immediately, but over the next 5-10 years, so property taxes won’t start going up significantly for them until the 2020s.
The down side of all this improvement, investment and development is that taxes and fees keep going up and so do property values and rents. This is driving many people and families out of Somerville. Two-thirds of our housing units are rentals, so rent increases are bad news for most people who live here. Our greatest challenge continues to be to mitigate the negative impacts from the increasing cost of housing. We are lucky to live here! But we must not forget the many who have been displaced or are in danger of being forced out because they can’t afford the rents, or the housing prices, or the taxes. We must make better use of tools like property tax exemptions and deferrals for senior citizens and others who own their own homes. This could help low-income homeowners remain in the City. I have been urging the Mayor, publicly and privately, to do more to publicize these options and to have City staff reach out to senior citizens to make sure that they are aware of them. I am also pushing to further increase the residential homeowner property tax exemption from 35% (already the highest in the state) to 40%.
If Somerville ceases to be a mixed-income community, and becomes a city of only wealthy people and professionals, we will become a completely different place, with a completely different feel. I love Somerville for its ethnic, racial, cultural -- and most of all -- socio-economic (class) diversity. I will do everything I can to preserve that diversity.
That’s why my priorities as the Ward 5 Alderman will continue to be affordable housing for low- and middle-income families; good jobs and job training for our residents; new zoning that requires development that will be good for residents; financial contributions from developers to help build infrastructure and for other community benefits; and attention to the critical quality-of-life issues such as traffic calming and safe streets, parking, rats, City services, and public safety. In these updates I mostly write about bigger, citywide issues. But I want you to know that most of my time as the Ward 5 Alderman is spent on quality-of life issues -- constituent concerns and development projects in the streets and neighborhoods of Ward 5.
21 Murdock St 22-unit development site; 231 Lowell Street -- 19 units & 2 storefronts
Real estate development projects in Ward 5
Here are some brief updates, in size order. Most of them are applying for permits from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), but some are already permitted. If you would like information or have questions or concerns about any of them, please contact me. There have been community meetings about all of the larger projects.
21 Murdock Street (17-25 Murdock & 225-227 Cedar Sts) – 22 units (four affordable), now scheduled to go before the ZBA on January 18th.
231 Lowell Street (corner of Woodbine) – 19 units (three affordable), two storefronts. Approved two years ago by the ZBA, they will go before the ZBA on January 4th to seek an extension of their expiring special permit. I have spoken to the developer half-a-dozen times in the past year, and he has said he plans to go ahead with this project.
290 Highland Avenue (the old Quik Mart) – 7 units (one affordable) & a storefront. Likely done by summer 2017.
21 Cherry Street – 6 units. The developer wants to bulk up the building and add many bedrooms without additional parking. The neighbors are opposed and have been urging the developer to scale down the plans. Currently scheduled to go before the ZBA on January 18th.
500 Medford Street (K-2 Beer and Wine) – 4 units proposed as an addition above and behind this storefront in Magoun Square.
483 Medford Street (old Piro Printing building) – 3 units & one storefront. Received approval in December from the ZBA to redo the exterior of the commercial space. The developer is renovating the interior. He reduced the size of the commercial space, adding several bedrooms on the ground floor.
A number of other development projects are pending. These are either small projects or their status is unclear: 98 Highland Road; 55 Partridge Ave; 45 Lexington Ave; 741 Somerville Ave; 31 Porter St & 17 Porter St (both in Ward 3 but across the street from Ward 5).
On another local Ward 5 note: I am happy to report that the MBTA has changed the name of the (scheduled for 2021, keep your fingers crossed) GLX Lowell Street Station to Magoun Square Station. This should help provide more recognition and publicity for this wonderful, dynamic little business district in Ward 5.
Union Square zoning
Since October, the BOA has been discussing the Administration’s proposal for a new Union Square zoning overlay district. This new zoning is intended to enable major development in Union Square and especially the area around the coming GLX Union Square Station by the master developer, Union Square Station Associates (US2), selected by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) in the spring of 2015.
The zoning overlay would allow US2 to submit a large-scale “Coordinated Development Special Permit” (CDSP) plan for all seven of the redevelopment parcels in Union Square (the “D blocks”), including the ones they do not own or control, which is most of them. US2 would be allowed to partner with the SRA on this application for a CDSP. That is important because the SRA has the legal power, granted to it in 2013 by the BOA (before I was on the Board), to take any property in the seven D blocks by eminent domain. If the BOA passes zoning similar to what the Administration has proposed, it will expedite large scale development in Union Square by allowing US2, in collaboration with the SRA, to shape development in all seven D blocks, either by working with property owners, pressuring them to sell, or taking properties by eminent domain.
(BOA President Bill White and I have repeatedly raised concerns about the role and power of the Somerville Redevelopment Authority. The SRA is an appointed body that does not act in a representative fashion for the community. I have attended most of their meetings over the past 18 months. SRA meetings usually last less than half-an-hour and feature few questions or serious discussion by SRA members, with the exception of William Gage, who lives in the Union Square area. I do not feel confident in the SRA’s capacity to make wise decisions about the future of Union Square. President White sponsored a BOA resolution with unanimous support that the SRA’s powers in Union Square be returned to the BOA, which I support. The Administration has not proposed changes to the SRA yet.)
There are a half-a-dozen key parts of the proposed new zoning for Union Square that I think need to be changed. Here’s a brief rundown on some the most important outstanding issues:
- Open space in new development in Union Square. The Administration has proposed 15% open space. Many community organizations that I respect have been pushing for 20%, 25% or even 34%. As the densest city in New England, Somerville desperately needs more open space. Real estate developments are actually worth more when there are better outdoor amenities.
- Solid plans and commitments for developer financial contributions to the GLX and sewer/water/street infrastructure. Mayor Curtatone announced a few months ago that developers will be expected to contribute collectively half of the $50 million that the City was forced to cough up for GLX; as well as half the cost of infrastructure improvements in the Union Square and Boynton Yards areas (sewer, water and above-ground streetscape improvements), perhaps as much as another $35 million. Mayor Curtatone has stated that there will be covenants signed with US2 detailing these contributions. I am waiting to see those covenants.
- Community benefits to help mitigate the negative effects of development, to help keep lower-income residents and small local businesses in Union Square, and to provide amenities such as civic and cultural spaces. The Mayor has said there will be a Community Benefits Agreements (CBA), but it has not been clear who will actually be at the table to negotiate it. Union United, a large, diverse coalition of community organizations, has been pushing for a CBA for several years. In recent months, plans for a Neighborhood Council with broad representation have emerged. This Neighborhood Council would have an official role along with the City government in negotiating a CBA with US2 and other Union Square developers. There must be representatives of the Union Square community at the table when a CBA is negotiated. While I don’t believe the details of a CBA need to be worked out before Union Square zoning is passed, I will not vote in favor of new zoning for Union Square until the Administration has committed to a viable arrangement for community representation in the CBA negotiations.
- Placement of affordable housing in new developments in Union Square. The proposed Union Square zoning would permit all affordable housing units (mandated by the 20% “inclusionary” housing ordinance the BOA passed in May) to be built in other locations in Union Square and concentrated on one or more “receiving sites.” While there may be some good reasons to move or concentrate affordable housing (for example, townhouse units may be better for families than apartments in 20-story towers), I am concerned that all affordable units will be relegated to a small number of locations, rather than distributed throughout the housing that will be built in Union Square. Family units could be built offsite, but some percentage of affordable units must be built in the same buildings as the standard units.
- Enforceable phasing of commercial development. There is unanimous agreement among community, business and government leaders in Somerville that commercial development which creates good jobs and generates more local tax revenue is the priority for new development. However, at this time, developers favor housing, as the strong market makes housing a lucrative and certain investment. I am concerned that developers could build housing first, make quick profits, and delay building commercial buildings – perhaps indefinitely. This has happened before in Union Square. The new zoning must require that commercial development happen before, or at the same pace, as housing development. And it must have teeth.
The Administration, the real estate development and business communities are urging the BOA to speedily approve the new zoning. I understand the desire to move forward quickly due to the nature of the business cycle and the possibility of a recession in the not-too-distant future. Real estate is a boom/bust industry. Right now it is boom times.
But I will not vote in favor of new zoning for Union Square until my major concerns, and those of the community, have been addressed. There are too many big issues outstanding that if not resolved satisfactorily will have a negative impact on the Union Square area and many residents’ lives. This is complicated stuff, and has huge implications. I’ve been helped by some excellent analysis by Union Square Neighbors, a group of homeowners in the Union Square area. I am grateful for their clear, rigorous and independent work. The BOA will get right back to this in January, with frequent meetings to work through the Administration’s proposal.
On a related topic, the Administration has announced it will introduce a second version of the citywide zoning overhaul proposal as soon as the Union Square zoning is completed. The first version, introduced in January 2015, was widely criticized and the BOA sent it back to the drawing board. Since then, the Planning Department Director, George Proakis, has held more than a dozen meetings with the community and the BOA to work through specific problems and issues. The Administration has made significant changes to their original citywide zoning overhaul proposal. The next round of discussions should be more fruitful. Only the BOA, by a 2/3 majority vote (8 of the 11 Aldermen), has the power to change the City’s zoning.
Ward 5 Alderman