Above: Lincoln Park (left) and a Green Line Trolley (right)
In this edition:
- Future of the Green Line Extension (GLX)
- Zoning:20% affordable housing; Union Square redevelopment; citywide overhaul v.2
- Lincoln Park: grass vs. artificial turf; playing fields master plan coming
Future of the Green Line Extension (GLX)
Following the revelation this fall that the project is $700 million to $1 billion over its $2 billion budget, the state agencies that control the GLX project (MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and the Mass Dept. of Transportation) are reviewing the entire project. They keep saying that cancellation is “on the table,” although Mayor Joe Curtatone and other City officials who have been involved in the internal discussions have stated publicly they do not believe that is really a possibility. The Mayor has given a number of solid reasons:
- $750 million has already been spent,
- A $1 billion federal grant for the GLX would be lost,
- The GLX would provide huge economic benefits, taxes and jobs to not only Somerville but also for the State, and
- The GLX is a legal responsibility of the State as mitigation for air pollution from the Big Dig Central Artery project.
Nonetheless, while I am hopeful, there is worry and dismay in Somerville. The new GLX Team in the state government is looking at cutbacks to the project that were described as “on the side of brutal” according to the Chair of the MBTA Control Board. What this would mean is not clear, but consultants have proposed cutting out the Union Square stop or making it a commuter rail or bus stop rather than a regular T station. And we now have a Republican governor who is not as supportive of spending state funds on public transportation as Democrats are. You can find a brief update letter from the MBTA General Manager, Frank DePaola, here: http://greenlineextension.eot.state.ma.us/
The state has adopted an aggressive timeline to make decisions: changing the plan in April and a new budget in May. Then the fun begins – figuring out who will pay for likely additional costs beyond the $2 million that is now available. Some state leaders have said the state shouldn’t provide any new money; instead Somerville and Medford, private developers, Tufts and others who will benefit from the GLX should bear the additional costs. I say we shouldn’t have to pay anything. We deserve better mass transit (look at all the T stations in Cambridge, Brookline and Newton while Somerville only has two) and GLX has been a state legal obligation for over 20 years. As Bill Shelton wrote in the Somerville Times, We’ve already paid for the GLX
The Community Path Extension (CPX) is a critical part of the GLX project for Somerville. Its fate is also uncertain, but it is a small part of the project (about $40 million), would add a great deal to the GLX, and is a priority for the Mayor and his administration.
I will be attending a meeting of the GLX Working Group tomorrow Feb. 5th from 10-12 AM at the Armory at which there will be a full discussion of all these issues.
Zoning: 20% affordable housing; Union Square redevelopment; citywide overhaul v.2
I can imagine you saying, “When I hear the word zoning, I reach for my pillow.” Yes, zoning tends to be one of those MEGO issues – “my eyes glaze over.” But especially at this time, with all the new development and the Green Line hopefully coming, zoning will shape the future of large sections of our City, our quality of life, and may affect Somerville’s financial future.
An example of zoning’s importance is the proposal for increasing the citywide inclusionary zoning requirement from 12 ½ to 20 percent. If passed, this zoning change would require developers of new housing of six units or more to set aside 20% of those units for rental or purchase by low-income people. A public hearing was held before the Board of Aldermen (BOA) and Planning Board on December 9th and dozens of people spoke passionately in favor of it. I have also received dozens of emails in support. The Planning Board will be making its recommendation to the BOA on February 18th and then the BOA will consider it. I am strongly in favor and am pushing for a vote by the BOA as soon as possible, hopefully in March. Here's an example of how this change would make a difference: Right now, in Assembly Square, Federal Realty Investment Trust is building an apartment building of about 450 units. Under the current zoning law, 56 of the apartments will be affordable. Not bad. But under the proposed new 20% rule, 90 apartments would be affordable. In a small city the size of Somerville, that’s a significant difference.
In late January, the City’s Director of Planning, George Proakis, announced that he hopes to introduce in March to the BOA a rezoning proposal for Union Square to update the zoning that the BOA passed in 2009. This proposal would be based on the Union Square Neighborhood Plan, which is currently under development. A draft Plan was released in the late fall and received extensive public comment, much of it critical. I am deeply concerned about a number of things in the draft Plan & my comments will be posted on my website, under the Issues tab, by next Monday. The Planning Department will be sharing “an update on how revisions are going and next steps” at a public meeting tonight, Thursday, February 4th at 6 PM at the Argenziano School. Here is a brief description of where they are at in the process of revising the plan.
Mr. Proakis also announced that the Planning Department is working on a second version of the new citywide comprehensive zoning overhaul proposal and hopes to have it out in June. The public hearing before the BOA and the Planning Board would be in September. The close of the comment period (usually about a month) after the public hearing would then begin the official 90-day window during which the BOA can act on the proposed new citywide zoning.
Meanwhile, the Planning Department is holding a series of public community workshops on different topics in the proposed new citywide zoning roughly every two weeks. Four have taken place so far and the next will cover Economic Development and job creation on Monday, February 8th at 6:30 PM at the Visiting Nurses Association, 259 Lowell St. Here is a complete schedule and other information.
Lincoln Park: grass vs. artificial turf; playing fields master plan coming
I was pleased by the Mayor's announcement that the Lincoln Park playing field will be grass rather than artificial turf. Lincoln Park is a park -- used for a wide range of activities, not just competitive sports. As the Mayor wrote, “Lincoln Park is our largest city-owned open space…it made sense to maintain this park as a large, natural open space for all to use.”
While I want as little artificial turf as possible, I can’t be against artificial turf (AT) in Somerville due to our severe shortage of playing fields. I am aware of the environmental arguments against AT, and I agree that crumb rubber fill is unacceptable; there are viable organic fill AT fields in our area. But unfortunately, AT is a necessity in our dense little City. I have advocated for AT on Conway Park -- which is purely an athletic field -- and I am open to AT on other fields. Currently there is AT at the Capuano School, East Somerville Community School, and on Dilboy Field. All are heavily used and I have heard few complaints about these fields.
Many good questions have been raised by parents of Somerville Youth Soccer League (SYSL) players about the availability of fields for youth sports during and after construction of Lincoln Park. A good grass field on Lincoln Park will need to rest and can only support about a quarter to a third of the current level of activity there, leaving much less time available for SYSL use. Parents are asking “Where will our kids play?,” “Are those locations practical for families without cars or where kids have to get there on their own?,” “What about rain which can force closure of grass fields,” and more. They want a clear plan from the Administration that will provide good answers these questions. So do I.
The Administration is finally developing a field use master plan based on a number of recent studies and reports on Somerville fields and parks. That plan will be presented on Tuesday, March 1, 6:30 pm at the East Somerville Community School cafeteria, and again on Wednesday, March 9, 6:30 pm at the West Somerville Neighborhood School cafeteria. I am expecting that we will receive answers to the questions above at these meetings.
The Mayor has said that the City will be getting additional fields including two fields at Tufts, a field in South Medford and use of the Draw 7 Park field behind Assembly Square. I have heard that the Tufts fields are near Powderhouse Square and easily reachable by public transportation. However, the South Medford field and Draw 7 Park are not easy to get to, especially for kids whose parents can’t drive them. I am expecting the fields plan to address this concern. Lincoln Park is in the heart of the City and easy to get to, especially for the many children who live in East Somerville. Replacements for it need to be well located as well.
There are several other potential new fields for soccer and other uses. Conway Park is not far from Lincoln Park, is easy to get to, and could sustain a lot more use if it were AT. I have pushed for more soccer on Trum Field, which is a beautiful and well-maintained grass field. Younger soccer players have been using it the last couple years and this has worked well. I have spoken with several School Committee members and Arn Franzen, the City’s Director of Parks, about redeveloping the Healey and Winter Hill Community School playgrounds. Both are oceans of concrete and underutilized. It might be possible to put a soccer field, similar to what is at Capuano and ESCS, on parts of those playgrounds, while also adding significant green space at both while getting rid of much of the concrete.
DPW can do a better job of maintaining our grass fields. In October, at a BOA Open Space, Environment & Energy Committee meeting, DPW Commissioner Stan Koty described in great detail how DPW had hired consultants and had begun to improve maintenance of grass fields. If DPW needs additional staff or more consultants, I will happily vote for the funds.
I understand the disappointment that SYSL parents feel as the Administration had for years been leaning towards AT at Lincoln Park. And I understand their concern that there be enough appropriate field space for SYSL youth. This is not an easy problem to solve. But SYSL has been reasonably well accommodated by the City in recent years. I am encouraged by the Mayor’s written commitment to provide adequate field space, his flexibility and practicality on the issue of grass vs. AT, and his awareness of practical issues such as lighting.
We need a solution that encourages athletic activity for our kids. SYSL is the largest youth sports program in the City, with over 900 players. Soccer is a great sport for youth. The City needs to do its part to sustain and support SYSL, as it does with other youth sports leagues.
If the fields master plan provides reasonable answers to the questions that have been raised, and unless some new information or concerns arise in the discussion of the Mayor's request, I expect to vote for the $9.4 million bond to renovate Lincoln Park, which involves many elements besides a grass field. Overall, it is an excellent package that will improve the park for a broad range of users. The item is now in the BOA Finance Committee (of which I am not a member). I expect that the Finance Committee will not make a decision on this until after the fields master plan has been presented in early March.
Ward 5 Alderman