Above: Community Path Ext Ribbon Cutting (left) and a Bird's Eye view of Lincoln Park (right)
In this edition:
- Community Path and Green Line Extensions: Good news and bad
- Artificial turf wars: Lincoln Park, athletic fields and turf vs. grass
- Traffic calming: Much easier now to petition the Traffic Commission for speed bumps
- Fire Dept headquarters and the taking of 515 Somerville Ave
Community Path and Green Line Extensions: Good news and bad
First the good news. The Community Path Extension from Cedar to Lowell St officially opened on August 19th. While it took too long to finish, and there’s too much impervious surface, it is lovely, especially in the evening. The City installed minimally-adequate safety measures on Lowell Street where the ramp comes up at the end of the CPX. My main concern – that unaware pedestrians and bicyclists coming to the end and exiting onto Lowell St from the ramp would cross Lowell St and get mowed down by some lunatic driving over the bridge at 40 MPH – has been avoided, but more safety measures and traffic calming are still needed. I have spoken with City officials and the Mayor, and they have assured me that another crosswalk and other safety measures will be installed, but not until next year.
Unfortunately, this has been overshadowed by the bad news that the price tag on the Green Line Extension (GLX) that will add six new stations through the heart of Somerville shot up by $700 million - $1 billion. This is a complicated and developing story with good coverage in the Boston Globe and Somerville Journal, see for example this Q&A piece on September 3rd: http://somerville.wickedlocal.com/article/20150903/NEWS/150908804/12581/NEWS
One of the best things I’ve read is this editorial by the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership http://www.somervillestep.org/the-entire-green-line-extension-must-be-built-heres-steps-position-on-how-to-move-forward/
STEP is a local activist group with a number of leaders who are experts in the transportation field. STEP is advising people: “If you believe the Green Line extension is important to Somerville’s future, this is the time to send your comments to Mass DOT and the MBTA. Send emails to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Since a lot of people have asked me what is likely to happen, and there’s been a lot of speculation, I’ll share briefly my sense of this evolving situation. Mayor Curtatone is in regular contact with the Governor’s Office and state agencies and says he is confident that the project will be built according to the current plans, but likely without the bells and whistles. That is fine with me. He said that while the state will make adjustments to the budget, he does not believe that there can be a change in the scope of work due to the $1 billion federal grant whose terms are difficult to change. They will simplify the station designs, possibly rebid the contract and/or look for new contractors, and seek out public-private partnerships with investments from developers. The state will also need to come up with additional funds to make up part of the shortfall.
At this point, it seems to me likely GLX will be built roughly as planned. The state has already invested over $300 million in construction and $200 million to purchase steel. The Commonwealth is legally and morally obligated to build GLX as a condition of the long-ago completed Big Dig and there is a court order in place to force it to do so. The economic benefits -- to Cambridge, Somerville, Medford and the state in terms of tax revenue -- will be huge.
There are likely to be additional delays; already the timeline for the Union Square and Washington Street stations has been pushed back to mid-2018 and the other four stations to 2021. My main concern, which I expressed at the August 27th Board of Aldermen meeting, is that community benefits from developers such as US2 in Union Square will be taken by the state to help with the shortfall for GLX. This would reduce developers’ contributions for affordable housing, open space, public buildings, and job training. I am all for public-private partnerships in building the GLX, and for developers contributing (it worked in Assembly Square with the new Orange Line MBTA stop there), but not at the expense of our community benefits.
Artificial turf wars: Lincoln Park, athletic fields and artificial turf vs. grass
The Board of Aldermen received a petition signed by 671 people on August 27th against the Administration’s plan to install an artificial turf soccer field at Lincoln Park. In June, a dozen parents and youth soccer league players spoke out in favor of artificial turf at Lincoln Park at the Public Hearing on the FY 2016 budget. I’ve received dozens of emails from parents of youth soccer players this year arguing that Somerville needs another artificial turf soccer field. This is one of the top issues in the City now in terms of resident concern and passion. The partisans are passionate and articulate and also all good people, mostly parents who care deeply about children and the community. My fear is that not only it gets ugly but that good people will spend a huge amount of time fighting each other over this issue. Both sides are right! We just have too few fields for all the people who want to use them. How do we resolve this painful issue in as fair a way as possible?
While Lincoln Park is not in my ward, and decisions about athletic fields are completely up to the Mayor, whatever decision he makes is likely to come before the Board of Aldermen for funding, so at some point we are likely to become involved. So here are my current thoughts on this topic.
I think there are two things that everyone can agree on. In the long term, we need more athletic fields in Somerville for our growing and increasingly active population. I have been pushing the Mayor and key department heads for over a year to make this a top priority for the City. I am hopeful we can get more fields from the state, but it will likely take years and will not solve the immediate problem of what to do at Lincoln Park. We need viable and safe soccer fields for the 1,000 kids in the Somerville Youth Soccer League and other youth soccer programs.
Second, the grass fields should be better maintained. Nobody I have spoken with believes the DPW is doing as good a job as possible in maintaining the fields. I am not sure why this is, and I don’t blame it on the workers but on management. Either the DPW does not have enough resources or enough expertise or both. With the exception of Trum Field, which proves that it’s possible, none of our grass fields are in tip-top condition. I asked the DPW Commissioner point blank during his budget presentation in June what additional resources were needed to improve the fields and he replied that given their heavy use, no improvement is possible. I am not convinced.
In terms of what to do at Lincoln Park, initially I agreed with the Administration that there should be artificial turf at Lincoln Park. Now I am not so sure. New information and questions have emerged. Given the persistent questions that have been raised by many people, I think the Administration needs to provide answers to those questions and reexamine their proposal to artificial turf the field at Lincoln Park. Some of the key questions are about usage of our fields. For example, why are outside adult sports groups allowed to use our fields when we don’t have enough fields for our own kids? Why are our own youth sports leagues required to pay to use our fields? Why is Lincoln Park used twice as heavily as any other field? How might field usage be shifted to retain grass there?
The September 2014 recommendations of the Somerville Fields Task Force, made up of a large number of stakeholders from different groups, seem to have been ignored by the Administration. A three-page summary provides a good road map for addressing the fields shortage. The Administration should dust this report off and use it to chart the way forward. Interestingly, it recommends grass for Lincoln Park.
Maryann Heuston, the Ward 2 Alderman, which includes Lincoln Park and Conway Park (next to the skating rink on Somerville Ave.), has suggested that Conway Park get artificial turf and Lincoln Park remain grass (but be completely renovated). The field at Lincoln is used for a wide range of activities, whereas Conway is exclusively used for competitive sports. I think this is an alternative worth exploring.
In a four-page position paper, Alderman Heuston wrote that the City needs to develop a City-wide, comprehensive strategy for programming and for design, maintenance, and location of athletic fields. I agree. Before putting artificial turf on Lincoln Park, or making any irrevocable decisions, the Administration needs to develop such a strategy.
While I would love not to have artificial turf anywhere in Somerville, I don’t think that is feasible. I am not willing to rule out artificial turf because we are a small city of four square miles with 80,000 people, one of the densest cities in the country, and it is important for the health of our residents and especially our young people that they have safe athletic fields to play on. We already have two artificial turf fields, plus Dilboy Stadium. The soccer field behind the Capuano School at Glen Park has been a huge success and is heavily used by youth soccer and neighborhood kids. I have heard few complaints about it. There are major drawbacks to both grass and artificial turf, neither alone is the solution to our problems.
If Somerville does get another artificial turf field however, it must NOT use pellets made of crumb rubber, which many have alleged is carcinogenic, but rather pellets made from safer natural materials such as coconut fiber or cork. There are such fields on the market and some in the Greater Boston area. If that costs more, it’s worth it. Also, in my view, cost is not the major issue here – for turf or grass. We need to spend whatever is necessary so that our kids have safe places to be play sports and so that there are open green spaces that residents can enjoy.
The Board of Aldermen Committee on Open Space, the Environment and Energy will meet next Wednesday September 16th at 6 PM in City Hall and will discuss this issue. It is a public meeting and you are invited to attend. There will also be a Public Hearing on this issue, the date of which will hopefully be announced at that meeting. Check the Board of Aldermen calendar on the City website or email me if you want to know when the Public Hearing will be held.
Traffic calming: Much easier now for residents to petition the Traffic Commission for speed bumps
As Bill Shelton put it in his August 19th Somerville Times column, “Empowering neighbors to calm their streets,” “Last month it got a lot easier for neighbors plagued by motorists speeding down narrow residential streets to do something about it. Aldermen, City staff, citizens and the Mayor’s office worked together to make it happen.” I worked closely with Ward 3 Alderman Bob McWatters and the Mayor’s office to change the regulations to make it easier for residents to take back their streets. Read Shelton’s excellent article http://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/60878
On July 16th, the Traffic Commission voted unanimously for new regulations for resident petitions for traffic calming measures, including new criteria for decisions about speed bumps, raised crosswalks, curb extensions, bumpouts, etc. The changes in Article 14 of the City’s Traffic Regulations means that if you want to petition the Traffic Commission for a speed bump on your street, you only need nine signatures for them to consider your request. Previously, signatures from 66% of the housing units on the affected streets were required – an overwhelming task on all but the tiniest streets. A copy of the instructions and petition form can be found HERE http://www.parksomerville.com/images/permit-info/Traffic-Calming-Info.pdf and http://www.parksomerville.com/images/permits/Traffic-Calming-Permit.pdf
You can find a description of the Somerville Neighborhood Traffic Management and Calming Program on pp. 55-58 HERE http://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/current-traffic-regs.pdf
In Somerville, the Traffic Commission has complete power over all traffic and parking issues, including fees and fines. The Board of Alderman has no official power in these areas. However, support from an Alderman will often help in an appeal to the Traffic Commission. So please contact me, or your ward Alderman if you are not in Ward 5, or an Alderman-at-Large for help and assistance with any traffic and parking issues you may have.
Fire Dept headquarters and the taking of 515 Somerville Avenue
In early July, there was a Public Hearing at which several dozen people spoke, most of them opposing the Administration’s request to the Board of Aldermen (BOA) for a bond of $5 million to take a large empty lot at 515 Somerville Avenue by eminent domain for the City to build a new Fire Dept Headquarters. The Finance Committee met twice that week to discuss this issue. We Aldermen were not impressed with the Administration’s case. In my view, the Administration had not considered many key questions that members of the public were asking. It looked as if they had hastily put together a poorly-developed proposal because a site that they considered ideal was available and empty. The Administration has been unclear about the locations for other fire stations, raising questions about coverage. Many believe, as do I, that we need a fire station to cover the middle and east part of Union Square as well as coverage for Assembly Square. With all the new development likely in the next decade or two, the Administration needs to present a comprehensive plan for fire station deployment, not just a plan for headquarters.
The Mayor has commissioned a study and will come back to the BOA with a revised plan in the future. I am confident that under the leadership of Finance Chair Tony Lafuente the BOA will look at this issue with the reasonable skepticism that any proposed eminent domain taking deserves.
Finally, the City should expect large private developers such as US2 in Union Square and Federal Realty Investment Trust in Assembly Square to bear a significant part of the cost for new public safety facilities.
Ward 5 Alderman