Ward 5 developments, FY 2018 budget, Why I voted for Union Square zoning

231 Lowell St.jpg

231 Lowell St, corner of Woodbine; will hold 22 units & two commercial spaces

In this edition:

  • Ward 5 developments: street & infrastructure work; parks; real estate development projects
  • FY 2018 budget: Mayor’s presentation tonight; Public Hearing June 21, 6 PM
  • Why I voted for Union Square zoning

Ward 5 developments: street & infrastructure work; parks; real estate development projects

Email or call me if you want more details or have concerns about these major Ward 5 projects.

Cedar Street sewer & water improvement project

For several years, this project has been chewing up & at times, closing off “lower” Cedar St. It will be mostly completed in 2017, but there may be repaving, sidewalk work & work on Hall St & Cedar Ave in 2018. It should alleviate the terrible flooding problem in the Cedar St/Hall St/Cedar Ave bowl. Sewer & water pipes are being replaced from Elm St to Highland Ave, at a cost of roughly $7 million. For the next couple of months, the contractor will be doing occasional blasting to break up bedrock and excavate under the street, so the sewer & water pipes can be installed. The first dynamite blasts occurred last week. The City Engineering Dept. seems to be doing a good job of working with the contractor & communicating with the neighbors.

Cedar Street road improvement and paving project

On “upper” Cedar Street, from Highland Ave to Broadway, the roadway will be reconstructed to calm traffic & make it safer. “Bump outs” will be installed at Clyde, Murdock, & Morrison, & there will be “chicanes” on much of the roadway, with some of the parking moved to the other side of the street, but no net loss of parking. If you’re not familiar with chicanes, take a ride on Lowell Street between Highland Ave & Magoun Square or down Columbia Street in Cambridge. Chicanes are surprisingly effective in calming traffic by shifting the roadway back & forth & alternating parking from side to side. This project was scheduled to happen 2 years ago, but was delayed due to turnover in the City Engineering Dept. It now appears to be on track for this fall. I am meeting with the Director of Engineering to discuss the project this week & have requested his attendance at a community meeting in September to inform neighbors about the plan & construction impacts. If you want to see the design and plans for the new roadway, email me.

Murdock Street improvements

I’ve been working with Murdock Street residents to improve that street, which lacks most basic infrastructure that we take for granted in Somerville -- sidewalks, storm drains, & trees. We held a productive meeting in late January with the Directors of Transportation & Infrastructure, Engineering, & Capital Projects. The City has hired an engineering consulting firm to do a number of studies & analyses regarding traffic, sewer lines, property lines, etc., so a plan can be developed to improve the street. City staff promised a follow-up meeting in the fall. I am also advocating for city action on some complicated parking & safety issues on Murdock Street. I will continue to push for these shorter-term improvements while the longer-term plans are developed.


  • Hoyt-Sullivan Park on Central St near Vernon St is closed & undergoing reconstruction, to be completed this year. There were 3 community meetings & a lot of input, particularly from parents, culminating in a new design that Arn Franzen, City Director of Parks, worked with a landscape architecture firm to develop. There seems to be broad satisfaction & enthusiasm about the new design.
  • Henry Hanson Park on Medford Street in Magoun Square. Bryan Bishop, the Veterans Services Director, secured a grant from the Community Preservation Committee to develop a new design for this little pocket park. It may be redeveloped in coming years if the City can secure funds.

231 Lowell Street, corner of Woodbine

231 Lowell St.jpg

See photo above. This 19-unit development with 2 commercial spaces on the first floor near the corner received its permit two years ago. The original developer finally sold it & a new developer demolished the old warehouse in May. The site is now being prepared for building. There will be 3 affordable units there.

290 Highland Ave, corner of Cedar St

This 7-unit development, 1 of them affordable, will also have a corner commercial space. It should be finished by the fall.

Other real estate development projects

The Lucky Market on Elm and Mossland got its permit extended this spring, so is likely to get started soon. A new façade is being put on the old Piro Printing building at 483 Medford St in Magoun Square, improving that eyesore. The 22-unit Murdock/Cedar Street development was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) in February; construction should begin before the end of the year. The application to add 7 units above the garage at 11-15 Alpine Street has generated significant neighborhood discussion & disagreement. A 3rd neighborhood meeting last Monday had inconclusive results. I imagine that the developer will be submitting a final plan & going before the ZBA sometime in June or July, but it’s not clear to me what will be in this plan.

FY 2018 budget: Mayor’s presentation tonight; Public Hearing Weds, June 21, 6 PM

If you are interested in what our City government does with your money, in City programs, & in the Administration’s priorities, you may find the Mayor's budget presentation tonight interesting -- Monday June 12th, starting around 6:30 or 7 PM in the Aldermen's Chambers in City Hall. The presentation will also be posted on the City website on Tuesday. A budget presentation sounds boring & dry, but it's not. It's a big-picture view of City priorities. The Mayor’s PowerPoint has a lot of pictures & graphics & it’s a good, quick way to understand the proposed $233 million City budget (4.79% increase over last year) for FY 2018. You can find the budget on the City's website here: http://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/fy18-budget-proposed.pdf

The Board of Aldermen (BOA) will hold budget meetings on all the weeknights during the next two weeks to discuss the budget, with department heads presenting their budgets & answering our questions. There will be a Public Hearing on Wed., June 21st at 6 PM in the Aldermen’s Chambers in City Hall. Whether your concerns are directly related to the FY 2018 budget or not, this is an excellent opportunity to share your thoughts with City leaders & decision makers. After the Public Hearing, the BOA will make cuts (unfortunately, by law, the BOA cannot add anything into the budget, only make cuts) & then vote a final FY 2018 budget at our regular meeting on Thursday, June 22nd.

Aldermen can affect the spending side of the budget indirectly, by passing resolutions and by advocating with the Mayor & his staff for more spending on specific programs. I have spoken out for more spending on job training & workforce development, & to hire staff to advise senior citizen homeowners on fixed incomes who are having trouble keeping up with rising taxes & fees, despite the tremendous increase in the value of their homes, & despite opportunities for tax abatements and deferrals.

Block D2 in Union Square 

Above: D-2 block next to coming GLX station, Union Square

Why I voted for Union Square zoning

The Board of Aldermen (BOA) voted 9-1 for new zoning for the heart of Union Square – a new Union Square Overlay District -- a little past midnight on Thursday night, June 8th. I voted yes without enthusiasm, & only because of huge changes that the BOA made to fix the Administration's original proposal. We also forced the Mayor to re-negotiate -- three times! -- the Development Covenant he had signed with the Union Square master developer, Union Square Station Associates (US2).

I'm not happy with the Administration's overall handling of the Union Square redevelopment process, or with the two key agreements that, along with the new zoning, will shape the future of Union Square -- the Development Covenant and the Master Land Disposition Agreement. Unfortunately, the BOA is not a party to either of those agreements, & although many of us spoke out against them, we had limited power to change them. But the BOA salvaged what we could & passed zoning that will permit development that will greatly enhance Union Square & enormously benefit the City. It's far, far from perfect but it is a lot better than delaying development further & leaving the old zoning in place.

I agree with many that the Union Square community has not had the influence that it should in shaping the redevelopment plans. Because of that, many Union Square activists & some organizations urged the BOA to delay passing new zoning until we could further improve the zoning, or until a community benefits agreement could be negotiated between US2 and the Union Square Neighborhood Council (USNC), or both.

The BOA had to weigh the potential costs of further delay vs. the potential benefits of acting now to pass zoning with some key issues like community benefits unresolved. Had we not acted now, the delay would likely be at least six months, for a number of complicated reasons.

I’ve learned that political moments when big things are possible come and go, & are not easily recreated. Timing is critical in politics, baseball and life. Passing any legislation, especially important & complex legislation, is a slow, grinding and uncertain task. (Look at national health care; it’s complicated!) The best is often the enemy of the good; & we are elected, in my view, to get big things done. I voted for an imperfect solution rather than the uncertainties of delay until late November, at the earliest.

There are tremendous benefits for the City and Union Square residents from the new Union Square Overlay District zoning, even if it does not do everything that we wanted. It will enable high-density, transit-oriented, mixed-use development in the core of Union Square around the coming GLX station. It will create 180 units of affordable housing at no cost to the City -- including at least 30 & possibly as many as 90 3-BR affordable apartments. It will generate significant monetary payments, tax revenue & community benefits that we desperately need in Somerville.

Development has positives and negatives. In Somerville, we are suffering from & too familiar with many of the negatives of development, such as gentrification, rising rents, displacement of low- & middle-income residents, displacement of local businesses, more traffic & less parking, & a white-hot real estate market with a lot of speculation making it difficult for ordinary people to buy homes.

But there are also positives to development, especially commercial development: jobs, tax revenue and fees for the City treasury, affordable housing, open &green space, infrastructure improvements, & financial contributions from big developers. The funds that development generates are needed to pay for big, expensive capital projects like the new Somerville High School, the Green Line Extension, sewer & water infrastructure repairs & improvements, a new police & fire headquarters, & building improvements to our Public Libraries. Development will relieve some of the pressure to continue to increase taxes and fees.

Here are some of the benefits we should receive from Union Square redevelopment:

  • An estimated 5,000 permanent new jobs
  • 4,000 construction jobs, with hiring preference for Somerville residents and veterans
  • 900 housing units, including 180 (20%) affordable, & between 30 & 90 3-BR affordable apartments
  • 2.5 acres of new, high quality parks and plazas
  • Ambitious requirements for sustainable building standards (LEED Silver and Gold)
  • $5.5 million to offset costs of the Green Line Extension
  • $6.6 million for Somerville's Affordable Housing Trust Fund
  • $4.6 million to offset costs of water, sewer, & roadway infrastructure
  • $3.7 million for a Community Benefits Fund
  • $3.5 million in additional "future phase" contributions from the developer
  • $2 million for workforce development & training
  • 69,000 square feet of artist & creative economy uses
  • $17 million in building permit fees paid to the City
  • $4.1 million in payments tied to infiltration & inflow storm water impacts
  • An estimated $450 million in new tax revenues from the development over 30-years.
  • It’s critical for the City to use these funds & benefits to mitigate the negative impacts of development. We need development without displacement, & the City needs to make sure that residents & businesses who might get pushed out have opportunities to stay in Somerville, either through affordable housing, better-paying jobs, or support & aid from developers.

Without new zoning (with the pre-June 8th zoning in place) there would be little development in Union Square, or, even worse, only residential (no commercial) development. There would continue to be what we have now: displacement without development. There would continue to be a huge rubble-strewn lot in the middle of Union Square & underdeveloped properties. The development that the new Union Square zoning will bring will not end displacement, but it will provide substantial resources & funds to help mitigate it.

During the debate on Union Square zoning, I identified a dozen areas in the Administration’s proposal that I had serious concerns about. I wrote amendments to address those concerns. A half-dozen key pieces in the new proposed zoning were so bad and so important, that if any one of those was not fixed, I would have voted against the entire package. One-by-one, over the course of the last two weeks of discussion and debate, each of these concerns was addressed. While I wasn’t completely satisfied with the solutions, they were good enough. Once that happened, it was clear that the benefits of development far outweigh the negatives. The key areas in which I required, and got, improvements in the zoning were:

  • The phasing of commercial and residential construction.
  • The percentage of development that must be high-tax-value, good-job-creating commercial (upper story office, lab/R&D, and design professions)
  • The amount of open and green space in the heart of Union Square.
  • The rules that would allow some of the affordable housing to be built “off-site” – i.e. not in one of the two big residential towers in the center of Union Square (which will be between 24-28 stories), but in another part of Union Square, most likely the D-7 (Goodyear) block.
  • The percentage of affordable three-bedroom apartments, since this is what is needed to keep families in Somerville.
  • Environmental concerns such as the amount of green space, energy efficiency and roof requirements in new buildings, etc.

There were other concerns which could not be satisfied in new zoning, but which we will have other opportunities to fulfill in the future. For example, many community members advocated for indoor community space in the heart of Union Square on the D-1 block, which now houses Ricky’s and the Public Safety Building. Since most of that block is City property, the Board of Aldermen will be able to set terms & conditions upon its disposal & sale by the City. If I am on the BOA at that time, I will require that an ample amount of space be set aside for things like a community meeting space, a gym or fitness center such as the YMCA, public library space, media & TV space such as SCAT TV, & offices for local non-profit & community organizations.

The Mayor & Planning Director George Proakis worked closely with the BOA over the past month & were willing to revise their original zoning proposal. They deserve credit for listening & addressing our & the community's concerns.

I received hundreds of emails, many of them passionate and thoughtful, and I appreciate hearing from so many people who care about the future of Somerville and Union Square. I want to thank the many community members & organizations who put enormous amounts of time & effort into communicating their analyses, criticisms, concrete proposals & suggestions to us Aldermen. The information they conveyed to us was enormously helpful. Almost all of the amendments I proposed came directly from these community members. Without their substantial contributions, the result would have been either no new zoning or much worse zoning than we eventually crafted.

There is still a lot of work to do: next up for the BOA (after the FY 2018 budget), is the Community Benefits Ordinance that will create the framework for community benefits negotiations between the soon-to-be-formed Union Square Neighborhood Council & US2 and determine whether a board appointed by the Mayor or the Neighborhood Councils have the power in deciding on distribution of the $3.7 million that US2 will contribute over the next 20 years. The Mayor was wrong to take all of US2’s financial contributions for the Administration’s priorities, leaving (according to US2) no money for US2 to pay out in community benefits negotiations. But there will be other community benefits funds from other developers, especially in Boynton Yards, right next to Union Square, which is ripe for development. In addition, there are many non-monetary contributions that developers can make, such as low-cost office and retail space, job training, jobs for residents, & support and advice for local businesses.

I'm sure that many 'Villens who have been engaged in the contentious Union Square zoning debate will criticize my “Yes” vote. That is fine; I want to hear it all! Coming this fall is Round 2 of the Administration's proposal for a citywide zoning overhaul. The impact of the citywide zoning overhaul will touch every neighborhood in Somerville – and have a much bigger impact on Ward 5 neighborhoods & residents than the Union Square zoning. The citywide zoning overhaul is an opportunity to protect our neighborhoods from the excessive development that is going on all over Somerville. There are sure to be lessons from Union Square zoning debate that will inform our next big zoning debate.


Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Alderman


[email protected]

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