20 mph safety zones; Union Square zoning & land disposition; more Ward 5 development projects

Slow traffic sign 20 MPH Sign

20 mph “safety zones” coming

2017: More big decisions & development; Union Square zoning

In this section:

  • Speed limits in Somerville will drop to 20 mph in 80 “safety zones;” update on other traffic-calming initiatives
  • Union Square zoning and the proposed Master Land Disposition Agreement (MLDA) between the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and Union Square Station Associates (US2), the master developer for Union Square
  • Still more real estate development projects in Ward 5

Speed limits in Somerville will drop to 20 mph in 80 “safety zones”; update on other traffic calming initiatives

In November 2016, the Traffic Commission voted to drop the speed limit on all streets (except state roads like McGrath Highway and parts of Broadway) to 25 mph. On February 16, the Traffic Commission reduced the speed limit to 20 mph in 80 designated safety zones of 300 feet each. In the next few months, signs should appear around parks, playgrounds, community gardens, senior centers, hospitals, places of worship, cemeteries, etc.

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Denise Provost, our State Representative, who worked doggedly for a decade to get the State Legislature to allow cities and towns to reduce speed limits.

This is significant progress, and I congratulate and thank the Administration for moving forward with these changes. But while I am pleased, I, and many of my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen, am far from satisfied. There is still much more that the City can do to make our streets safer.

The City has the legal authority right now to make all City streets 20 mph, and I and several other Aldermen are advocating that the Administration do so.

The City’s Traffic Calming Petition Initiative Program has been a disappointment. Not a single one of more than 30 petitions submitted by residents over the past two years has even received a formal response, much less any action. The Administration released a report in December that explained that data collection and analysis have delayed responses. (Let me know if you’d like to see this report and I will send it to you.) It’s great that the City is using data to make decisions about traffic calming. But for residents to wait a year or two for a response to a petition asking for a speed bump on a little neighborhood street is unacceptable. I have spoken with the Mayor and many top City officials and expressed my displeasure about the delay. The Administration has only said that they will update the Board of Aldermen on the petition program in the early spring.

Unlike many cities and towns in our area, Somerville does not seem to believe in speed bumps. As far as I know, there are only two speed bumps in the entire City, one by Marshall St playground and one by Hodgkins-Curtin Park. (These are temporary speed bumps and have been taken up for the winter.) A speed bump on a small residential street seems to me to be the most cost-effective way to slow traffic and ensure resident safety. I believe Somerville should have hundreds of such speed bumps. I filed these three Board orders at the February 9 BOA meeting:

“That the Traffic Commission consider amending Article 14 of the City Traffic Regulations to provide a separate, expedited, timely and simplified means for residents and Aldermen to request, and for the Commission to approve, the placement of speed bumps on residential streets.”

“That the Director of Traffic and Parking purchase 70 temporary speed bumps to deploy, beginning in April or as soon as possible, on residential streets that have requested traffic calming measures.”

“That the Director of Traffic and Parking purchase 21 flashing speed monitoring sign boards to deploy on streets where residents are concerned about speeding.”

Unfortunately, under the City Charter, Aldermen may only cut the City budget and may not add any line items. So I have no power to force the Administration to purchase speed bumps.

I will continue to plug away on traffic calming to improve the safety of our streets. If you want a speed bump or more traffic calming measures in your neighborhood, I encourage you to write to the Mayor at [email protected].

Union Square zoning and the proposed Master Land Disposition Agreement (MLDA) between the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and Union Square Station Associates (US2), the master developer for Union Square

Since October, the BOA has been discussing the Administration’s proposal for a new Union Square zoning overlay district. After the initial proposal timed out without a vote due to the many concerns that Aldermen and members of the public have, the Administration is introducing a revised proposal. There will be a Public Hearing on the revised zoning proposal before the BOA and Planning Board on Tuesday, March 7, 6 PM in City Hall.

This zoning overlay would enable major development in Union by US2, the master developer of Union Square, selected by the SRA in June 2015. If it passes, US2 could submit a “Coordinated Development Special Permit” (CDSP) plan for all seven redevelopment parcels in Union Square (the “D blocks”), including the ones they do not own or control, which is most of them. US2 could partner with the SRA on this application for a CDSP. The SRA has the legal power, granted in 2013 (before I was on the BOA), to take property in the D blocks by eminent domain.

There are a number of problems and unresolved issues with the proposed new zoning for Union Square:

  • Open space in new development. The Administration has proposed 15% open space. Many Aldermen and community organizations want 20%, 25% or even 34%. As the most densely populated city in New England, Somerville needs more open space.
  • Commitments for developer financial contributions to the GLX and sewer, water, and street infrastructure. Mayor Curtatone announced that developers will be expected to contribute half of the $50 million that the City paid for GLX, as well as half the cost of infrastructure improvements in Union Square and Boynton Yards, perhaps another $35 million. 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 keep lower-income residents and small local businesses in Union Square, and to provide 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. In recent months, plans for a Neighborhood Council with broad representation have moved forward. That is good, but I will not vote for the new zoning 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 zoning would allow affordable housing to be built in other development blocks in Union Square and concentrated on one or more “receiving sites.” While there are some good reasons to move or concentrate affordable housing (for example, to group larger units near family-friendly amenities), I want affordable and market-rate units to be mixed together. The affordable units must be of similar quality to market-rate units. If we can get more affordable units on another one of the D blocks than in the 20-story residential tower proposed for the D-2 block, that might be a good trade-off for the City.
  • Enforceable phasing of commercial development. There is unanimous agreement in Somerville that commercial development which creates good jobs and generates more City tax revenue is a priority. However, most developers prefer to build housing now because it’s a lucrative and certain investment. I am concerned that developers could build housing first, make quick profits, and delay commercial buildings – perhaps indefinitely. The new zoning must require that commercial development happen before, or at the same pace, as residential.

The Administration, US2, and the Chamber of Commerce are urging the BOA to speedily approve the new zoning. I understand the desire to move forward quickly due to the business cycle and the possibility of a recession. 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.

A recent major development was the presentation to the five members of the SRA on February 16 of a proposed Master Land Designation Agreement (MLDA). The MLDA is a contract between the SRA and US2 that lays out the terms for the SRA to convey the seven development parcels in the heart of Union Square to US2 for their coordinated development of those parcels. Of most immediate importance, it describes the terms, including the price, for the sale of the critical D-2 block, which abuts the coming GLX station (now projected for June 2021). The Union Square Neighborhood Plan calls for a 20-story tower with 400 apartments and a 13-story commercial building on the D-2 block. The MLDA also describes the steps through which the SRA can take designated property by eminent domain and then sell it to US2.

In the past, the SRA has voted on proposals such as the MLDA quickly and with little public notice or discussion. To the Administration’s credit, they did announce that this was happening. To their discredit, they did not apparently see any need for public comment and discussion. (The SRA has no staff of its own; staff is provided by the City’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.) It appeared that this MLDA might be approved by the SRA on short notice. However, due to an outcry and demand from the public, there was extensive discussion with the public at the February 23 SRA meeting. The SRA will hold a Public Hearing on the MLDA on March 8 at 5:30 pm (location to be announced).

I submitted 10 paragraphs of questions and concerns to the SRA on the MLDA. (Let me know if you want to see them and I will send them to you.) My primary concern is that this deal is too favorable for the developer US2 at the City’s expense, and that the risks are too great for the City. In addition, the likely sale price of the D-2 block seems to me to be way too low, far less than its fair market value. The City appears to receive no compensation in the deal for designating US2 with the extremely advantageous and preferential position of master developer of Union Square, which gives US2 the inside track to development worth hundreds of millions of dollars or perhaps even billions of dollars. So I am urging the SRA and the Administration to go back to the negotiating table with US2 and get a better deal for the City.

BOA Board President Bill White submitted the following resolution, unanimously adopted at the BOA meeting of February 23: "That the Administration delay any final vote by the Redevelopment Authority on the Union Square Land Disposition Agreement until a public hearing is held to obtain public input and respond to public questions, and until the Agreement is discussed with this Board." The Resolution was sent to the BOA Committee on Housing and Community Development, which I Chair, and I have scheduled a meeting to discuss the MLDA for this Thursday, March 2, 7 PM in City Hall (2nd Floor Conference Room). This meeting is open to the public, as are all BOA meetings.

On another zoning topic of great interest to many neighbors and property owners in Somerville, the Administration has announced it will introduce a second version of the citywide zoning overhaul as soon as Union Square zoning is completed. Since nobody knows when this might be, residents whose neighborhoods are enduring almost-continuous development are beginning to express frustration and anger. The current zoning has many problems, perhaps the most significant of which is that it allows too much infill development in our already-dense residential neighborhoods, development that many current residents do not want.

Still more real estate development projects in Ward 5

My role as the Ward Alderman in terms of development projects is to encourage and help neighbors to be involved in the public application process and to facilitate dialogue between the neighbors and the developer. This may mean organizing a community meeting, reaching out to neighbors, and/or working with neighbors to help them express their concerns with as much power and impact as possible. I spend a lot of time explaining how the process works. I will usually take a position on an application, often near the end of the process, and either testify before the ZBA in person or send an email. Anyone can appear at a ZBA meeting and speak to them about an application they are considering or submit written comments on any development project at [email protected].

Here are some brief updates on development projects in Ward 5. New projects this year have asterisks ***.

21 Murdock Street (17-25 Murdock & 225-227 Cedar Sts) – 22 units (four affordable), approved by the ZBA on January 18th. Demolition is likely in late summer, early fall.

231 Lowell Street (corner of Woodbine) – 19 units (three affordable), two storefronts. Received extension of their special permit on January 4th. The developer told me earlier this year that he will get started soon.

*** 31 Porter Street (Ward 3 but right across the street from Ward 5) – 8 units proposed. There have been two neighborhood meetings. The neighbors are unanimously opposed due to the number of units, loss of green space, it doesn’t fit in the neighborhood, etc. Not clear what the developer’s next steps will be.

11-15 Alpine St, developer wants 7 units

*** 11-15 Alpine Street (near Cedar Street, pictured above) – 7 units proposed for redevelopment of this garage. See photo above. Neighborhood meeting on March 6, 6:30 pm at 2 Alpine St. (corner of Cedar). Many concerns expressed so far including environmental issues, height, privacy impact on abutters and design.

290 Highland Avenue (the old Quik Mart), corner of Cedar and Highland Ave – 7 units (one affordable) & a storefront. Under construction, 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 urged the developer to scale down the plans. Initial hearing held before the ZBA on February 1. A number of discrepancies in the application are being investigated by City staff; ZBA asked the developer and neighbors to hold another meeting and try to find a compromise. The outcome is not yet clear.

500 Medford Street (K-2 Beer and Wine) – 4 units proposed as an addition above and behind this storefront in Magoun Square. Application is on hold for now.

*** 39 Murdock Street – 3 units. The developer is expanding a small single family with less than 1,000 square feet into a large 3-family with 10 bedrooms and almost 6,000 square feet. Neighbors are concerned about parking issues. Currently scheduled to be heard by ZBA on March 1.

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. Under construction

*** 17 Porter Street (Ward 3 but across the street from Ward 5) – Proposal is to turn a two-family into a three-family. While suggestions for improvement were made, there did not seem to be any outright opposition at a neighborhood meeting. Will likely go before ZBA on March 15.

If you would like information or have questions or concerns about any of these projects, please contact me.


Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Alderman


[email protected]

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