Council Update: Affordable housing overlay; Ward 5 traffic calming; Winter Hill Star urban renewal plan


Flex posts on Morrison Ave near Cedar St.

In this issue:

  • Affordable housing overlay district zoning proposal moving forward, presentation Tuesday night Sept. 29 at 6 PM
  • Public Hearings on enforcing zoning conditions on development projects in our neighborhoods Wednesday night Sept. 30 at 6 PM
  • Traffic calming on dangerous Ward 5 streets
  • Somerville Redevelopment Authority approves Winter Hill Urban Renewal Plan; start of a long process to redevelop the vacant Star Market site
  • Please donate to the Somerville Cares Fund to help families whose income has been decimated due to the pandemic

Affordable housing overlay district zoning proposal moving forward, presentation Tues., Sept 29 at 6 PM

On Tuesday night the City Council Land Use Committee (LUC) will continue discussing an affordable housing overlay (AHO) zoning proposal.  City planning staff zoning whiz Dan Bartman will be making a third presentation to the LUC.  We have had three or four discussions of the concept and revised and focused our thinking on what we believe might work and generate additional affordable housing in Somerville.  If you want to attend the virtual meeting and watch the presentation, you can sign up here:

Ward 3 Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, Chair of the LUC, in his September 19 newsletter, provided this update:

“Why we need an "Affordable Housing Overlay District" in Somerville. I'm very happy to say that my wife Alex and I are expecting our first kid in November(!) So, even more than usual, I've been thinking about the future of Somerville. Here's my take: in many ways, being born in Somerville is like winning the lottery. This City is incredible. Yet every year, it becomes harder and harder for anyone who isn't already wealthy to live…or start a family here, and all of the incredible benefits we are collectively creating are increasingly out of reach for most people. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that you don't have to be rich to be born in Somerville. The best way we can do that right now is to make it easier to build more affordable housing in our community. If we want more diversity and more economic justice, we must do this. While there is no silver bullet, one thing the City Council can do right now is use our zoning laws to help move the needle.” 

“As Chair of Land Use Committee, my top priority is to pass an Affordable Housing Overlay District in Somerville, which will remove some of the common obstacles to building affordable housing, and will provide incentives to building more affordable housing. We are still working out the details in Committee, and will be planning a formal process for public feedback in the coming weeks, but the basic idea is this: streamline the permitting process for 100% affordable developments, and incentivize affordable housing by allowing 100% affordable developers to build larger buildings than would be allowed for "market rate" developers, especially near public transit. I will be sharing much more on this once we have a fleshed-out proposal to present to the public.”

(You can see the Ben’s entire newsletter here, and I encourage you to sign up to receive it regularly:

I am looking forward to working closely with my LUC colleagues and Mr. Bartman of the City Planning staff  to develop a proposal and then to hearing public comment, feedback and concerns.  You may have heard that an AHO proposal in Cambridge, that had substantial support from affordable housing proponents, was not approved by the Cambridge City Council earlier this year.  There was a huge controversy and significant neighborhood opposition due to the fear that large buildings would be built in areas with mostly smaller structures.  I expect that whatever the LUC comes up with as an AHO proposal will be controversial in Somerville. However, I hope we can be more successful than Cambridge has been so far in getting an AHO district zoning amendment passed.

Public Hearing on enforcing zoning conditions on development projects in our neighborhoods Wednesday, September 30, at 6 p.m.

One of the most upsetting things about public life in Somerville are the battles over development projects that neighbors in Ward 5 and around the City have been forced to engage in.  (Hopefully the new zoning that we passed at the end of last year will reduce this significantly.)  Some neighbors have had to devote hundreds of hours to protect their neighborhoods from bad developments and  bad developers.  Some developers just ignore conditions enacted by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on what they are supposed to build and violate the working conditions they are expected to abide by. Not all developers, but there are some “bad” developers.  These developers create ongoing problems because they act in self serving, ill advised and sometimes, dangerous activities as they build their projects. 

For example, just this week, I received terrified calls and emails from residents of Porter Avenue, a tiny street off  of Porter Street in my own neighborhood.  A contractor for the developers of the property below theirs  (59 Linden Avenue) was digging out the bottom of the 100-foot-high hill on top of which their houses sit.  A huge excavating machine was cutting dirt out of the hill, scarring trees that prevent erosion, and encroaching over the property line on two of the Porter Avenue properties. The contractor did not have a map or plan of the site on hand to guide the work.  This kind of incompetence, plain arrogance and offensiveness to neighbors is unusual.  But developers cutting corners, breaking rules, and not complying with conditions that the ZBA has imposed is sadly, quite common. I called the Director of Inspectional Services and they put a Stop Work order on the property. Some developers simply do whatever they want and expect to get away with it. Or, they figure the penalties, if imposed, will be light enough that they can afford to do what they want and deal with the consequences later.

A big part of the problem is that the City’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) has, over the years, done a poor job of enforcing zoning conditions in development projects.  So developers believe -- with some reason based on their past experience -- that they can disobey the conditions and the law and get away with it.  This, of course, makes the neighbors and us Councilors furious.  Neighbors feel betrayed by our own city government when this happens.  While there has been improvement under the fairly-new Director of ISD, Nick Antanavica, and I believe he is doing his best, ISD has a long history of permissiveness to overcome in order to adequately regulate development in Somerville. 

If you want to hear more about what has happened, or if you have your own story to tell about problems with a development or developer in your neighborhood, please come to 2 consecutive Public Hearing on enforcement of conditions in development projects.  Here is the announcement and how you can give testimony:

2 Public Hearings on Zoning Enforcement on September 30, at 6 PM 

Members of the public are invited to attend and speak at two Public Hearings on Wednesday, September 30, at 6 p.m. both regarding the processes for enforcing zoning requirements.  

On the Order of Councilor Jesse Clingan, Chair of the Committee, the City Council’s Committee on Public Utilities and Public Works Committee of the Whole will accept public testimony on the following:    

  • First hearing by City Council Order #210595: the process for ensuring that all conditions of a Special Permit are met prior to the final signoff by the Inspectional Services Department and the issuance of a certificate of occupancy;  
  • Second hearing by City Council Order#210596: the process for ensuring developers' compliance with the conditions of Special Permits and the Inspectional Services Department's enforcement of those conditions.  

You have two ways to be heard at this meeting:  

Traffic calming on dangerous Ward 5 streets

In my seven years as a City Councilor, perhaps the most constant concern that Ward 5 residents have raised with me is about the safety of our local streets for pedestrians.  (There have also been extensive concerns expressed about safety for bicyclists in Ward 5.)  Over the years, the Administration of Mayor Curtatone has not done nearly enough to implement traffic calming on our streets.  (Of course, traffic calming will also benefit drivers of motor vehicles, although it may cost them a few additional minutes in their trip.) 

However, I am happy to report that in the last couple of years, the Administration has staffed up, done some departmental reorganization, and enhanced the City’s capacity to do traffic calming.  I am far from satisfied, but significant improvement has occurred.  Every year at budget time, I beg the Mayor to invest more City funds in the Mobility Department to save the lives and bodies of pedestrians by making our streets safer for walkers, as well as bikers.

You may be aware that in the past year, hundreds of neighborhood streets in the City have been designated as 20 MPH “Safety Zones.”  And I am sure you have seen the “Shared Streets” that have been marked off as safer places for pedestrians and bicyclists due to the need for more public open space with the social distancing requirements of Covid-19.

My two biggest worries on our Ward 5 streets have been Lowell Street between Highland Avenue and Magoun Square, and especially the intersection of Lowell and Albion Streets, and Morrison Avenue between Willow Avenue and Cedar Street.  I am happy to report that the Mobility Department has worked with DPW to install flex posts in both these locations. The flex posts slow down and serve as obstacles to drivers who are going too fast.  (And they are still standing!)  I am particularly pleased with the flex posts on Morrison Avenue, as they force all traffic into one lane at three different points (one of them in Ward 6 west of Willow Ave).

On Lowell Street, where there have been dozens of  crashes in the past five years, the installation is too recent for certainty, but it seems that the flex posts do slow and control traffic a bit.  However, I do not believe this is sufficient  for the hilly, particularly dangerous intersection of Lowell and Albion Streets.  A group of neighbors, many of them with children, have been advocating for more than two years for stop signs on Lowell Street at Albion.  Unfortunately, the Mobility Department has been reluctant to install stop signs there.  As neighbors have pointed out, there are many stop signs at similar intersections in the area that are safe and effective, for example Porter and Summer Streets; and Summer and Cherry Streets.  The Mobility Department has promised a study now that the flex posts are installed to determine whether stop signs are justified.  I am praying that the study determines that stop signs can be installed on Lowell Street at Albion, and that it happens before somebody gets killed at that intersection.

One other traffic calming issue in Ward 5 is Broadway.  Some significant improvements have been made, but Broadway is still a too-fast street for a dense urban area.  There is much more that needs to get done.  City staff and the MBTA GLX Team are working on installing another crosswalk on Broadway in Ball Square near Boston Avenue.  Other improvements will happen around the Ball Square GLX station area.  Due to the closure of the Broadway Bridge for a year, it has been difficult to upgrade that part of Broadway, but you may have notices that bicycle lanes were recently installed.  There will be some flex posts put in that area in the next few months.


Winter Hill Urban Renewal Plan area

Somerville Redevelopment Authority approves Winter Hill Urban Renewal Plan; start of a long process to redevelop the vacant Star Market site

Last year, the City Council passed legislation to expand the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) from five to seven members, with one of the additional members appointed by the Mayor, and the other one a City Councilor appointed by the President of the Council.  Ward 3 Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen is doing a great job of representing the interests of City residents and sharing information about the goings-ons of this incredibly powerful and important but relatively unknown City board.

Down below is what he wrote about the SRA’s work on redeveloping the long-vacant Star Market site and surrounding area on Winter Hill.  As background for newcomers to this issue, the Star Market has been vacant for about 10 years because the owner of the property was unhappy with the zoning the City established there, sued the City, lost, and lost appeal after appeal, and has refused to do anything with the property.  So the City is now looking at taking the property, which is run-down, blighted and a public safety hazard, by eminent domain for redevelopment.  These details are from the minutes of the August 19 SRA meeting:

“[Director of Economic Development] Mr. Galligani provided an overview of the Winter Hill Urban Renewal Plan submitted to the SRA for review and approval. On the heels of the Winter Hill Neighborhood Plan, the economic development team, with Lauren Drago as the project manager, has been working closely with the neighborhood for over a year to carefully consider their thoughts on tackling the vacant Star Market site.”

“Ms. Drago presented the details of the Draft Winter Hill Urban Renewal Plan to the Board. The project area includes the…existing Walgreens, 2 corner buildings on Temple Street and Broadway. The proposal imagines a subdivision to create three different parcels out of this project area.  As depicted in the visuals provided in the presentation, D1 would become green open space, D2 would be conveyed to an affordable housing developer, and D3 would be the largest parcel for a commercial/residential development with additional open space. The Neighborhood Plan objectives include but are not limited to redeveloping vacant and underutilized properties into uses that better meet the community needs, minimize displacement by providing additional affordable housing, pursue equitable outcomes in the neighborhood, improve Winter Hill’s main street commercial district, and create green and open spaces to support community life and the environment.”

Councilor Ewen-Campen wrote:

“Winter Hill Redevelopment (the long-vacant Star Market Site on Broadway.)  I serve on the Somerville Redevelopment Authority, and this past Wednesday we voted unanimously to advance a redevelopment plan for the vacant Star Market site on Broadway, which will now be considered by the Planning Board, then the City Council. This approach was the result of extensive community process, including much organizing and advocacy by the Winter Hill Neighborhood Association, Ward 4 Councilor Jesse Clingan and State Rep. Christine Barber. I am strongly in favor because Somerville deserves better than this giant vacant building in the heart of Winter Hill. Importantly, this Plan does not lay out what will actually be built on the site. That will come from a dedicated community process, followed by a process to select a developer to actually do the work (I’ll be pushing for maximizing new affordable housing.) So, please stay involved and stay tuned.”

I want to stress that this plan will need to be approved by the Planning Board, the City Council, and eventually the State Dept. of Housing and Community Development before it can be implemented.  If any changes are made, it will need to go back to the SRA for their re-consideration.  There will be ample opportunity for public comment and feedback when the City Council considers it.  So this is really just the beginning…it will be many more months before any final decisions are made, and years before significant redevelopment begins in the area.  It is my hope that in the coming years this long-neglected neighborhood will finally get the neighborhood center it deserves.

Please donate to the Somerville Cares Fund to help families whose income has been decimated due to the pandemic

Many of us may have adjusted somewhat to the “new normal” of life under the cloud of a pandemic.  Many of us may think that as businesses, workplaces, restaurants, gyms, houses of worship, etc. slowly open back up, that life is returning to normal in Somerville.  Of course,  parents with children at home, especially younger children, understand every single day, especially weekdays when their kids are home and not at school, that this is not really true. 

But the old “normal” was not working for many Somervillians before the pandemic, and Covid -19 has made this clearer for us all to see.  For many families in Somerville, particularly immigrants and low-income families, the dire situation is still threatening their health, housing stability and wellness.  A superb and searing report from the Community Action Agency of Somerville about the Somerville Cares Fund highlights the crisis. Councilor Ewen-Campen wrote eloquently on this topic as well in his September 19 newsletter:

“… the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere near over, and the economic devastation has been catastrophically worse for Somerville residents who were already struggling. These stark facts are laid out in a report from the Somerville CARES fund which I highly recommend reading. [This report looks long, but it is only six pages of highly-readable text, with a lot of charts and graphs at the end. – MN] This fund has raised over $660,000 from generous local donors, and has now distributed all of it to nearly 1,300 Somerville families. The majority of these families prefer to speak a language other than English, have had limited access to State or Federal aid, and have seen a total or near-total loss of income since March. Many report that they are having trouble meeting their basic needs for food, stable housing, and internet connectivity, with an eviction moratorium currently set to expire [when the City public health emergency ends]. As we continue to work on the many issues we face in Somerville, we need to remember these stark facts and keep our priorities straight. None of these challenges can be solved at the municipal level alone, yet we need to do everything in our power to help.”  

One thing those of us with some discretionary income can do now is contribute generously to the Somerville Cares Fund.  United Way of Massachusetts Bay is the fiscal agent for the Fund; you can find out how to contribute here:

Mark Niedergang, Ward 5 City Councilor 617 629-8033

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published this page in Updates 2020-11-11 22:13:22 -0500


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