Worse traffic nightmares coming; Cedar St paving; trees & open space; citywide zoning overhaul

In this issue:

  • Even worse traffic nightmares coming soon; more on Broadway/Ball Square Bridge closure, detour routes, and mitigating the traffic and public safety impacts
  • Cedar Street to be paved next week
  • Tree slaughter and the need for more open and green space in Somerville
  • Citywide zoning overhaul up again for round 3; public hearing rescheduled to October 30, 6 PM
  • Important meetings, public hearings and early voting schedule

Some introductory remarks about newsletters

I have received much positive feedback over the years about my newsletters, as well as some criticism and suggestions.  I appreciate all of the feedback.  Many people in Somerville have told me that they value what I write not just for my views on the issues, but as news.  There is, unfortunately, a lack of good, in-depth reporting in local media these days.  In that light, I want to say a couple of things.

First, many of my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen (BOA) are now putting out newsletters.  They are all good, but I want to call a couple to your attention because they are excellent and also full of news.  If you like to read about important issues in Somerville, I encourage you to contact and get on the email lists of Ward 3 Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen and Alderman-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch.   You may also want to get on the email list for the alderman who represents your ward.  You can find contact info for all aldermen here: https://www.somervillema.gov/boa

Second, because this year I became the Chair of two important BOA committees, Legislative Matters and Traffic & Parking, a lot of my time is taken up with planning and preparing for committee meetings. Legislative Matters especially takes a huge amount of time because much of the important legislation that the BOA works on is in that committee. So, for example, right now in Legislative Matters are recreational marijuana licensing (zoning/location of marijuana establishments is in the Land Use Committee), condominium conversion, short-term rentals (AirBNB), demolition review, tenant right of first refusal, community benefits, green and open space and other environmental issues, and much more.  Since I am a ward alderman, I must also prioritize constituent service – a key part of my job is helping Ward 5 residents get what they need from City government and dealing with development projects in Ward 5.  I mention this just because I am finding it harder to find the time to write these newsletters, so they may become a little less frequent.  But fortunately other aldermen are doing a great job of filling the news gap.

Now on to the substance….

Ball_Sq_bridge.JPG   Ball_Square_Somerville_MA.jpg

Even worse traffic nightmares coming soon; more on Broadway/Ball Square Bridge closure, detour routes, and mitigating the traffic and public safety impacts

I hate to tell you this, but if you think traffic in Somerville is bad now, it is going to get worse -- much worse -- in the next few months.  Beginning in January 2019, the Broadway / Ball Square Bridge (between Boston Ave. and Cedar St.) will close for one full year to all traffic – motor vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles -- as part of ongoing construction for the Green Line Extension project (GLX).

My #1 priority is mitigating the traffic and public safety impacts from the detours of the bridge closure.  I will continue to advocate to the GLX Team, the City Administration, & state officials with my four top concerns:

(A) strong police enforcement during rush hours at key intersections on the detour route to keep cars & trucks out of the Ball Square neighborhood encircled by Cedar St, Highland Ave & College Ave;

(B) a shuttle van service around the pedestrian detour and to get bus riders to and from their (relocated) bus stops;

(C) physical traffic calming measures in that Ball Sq. neighborhood (in addition to the 20 mph safety zones that will be installed later this year); and

(D) a strategy & mechanisms for dealing with the narrow places on Cedar Street between Broadway and Highland Avenue, to prevent logjams when two large vehicles encounter each other going in opposite directions.  

(I discuss each of these concerns in detail in my August 28th newsletter; you can see my past newsletters at https://www.markniedergang.com/?page=2 )

While City and GLX officials are working on all of these concerns, and some progress has been made, I am not satisfied that they have seriously addressed these problems.  Most worrisome, it is not clear to me at this time when and if they will be resolved.  So I am concerned, as January 2019 is now only 2 ½ months away. 

For a good update on where things are at with some of these issues, see this excellent article from early October: http://medford.wickedlocal.com/news/20181002/glx-mbta-has-no-plans-for-south-medford-shuttle-bus?fbclid=IwAR3xiyid-ogq5jq-cLphGVnO3F_9OG4dBJPe9QxAZUQGeW0nWyZXO9QNp_o

And in Union Square, traffic has been terrible since the spring due to sewer and streetscape work in the middle of the Square.  Beginning in November, there will be a major traffic detour in Union Square, lasting about six months. This is part of the long-planned major infrastructure work on the City’s sewer system.  You can find regularly-updated info on Union Square infrastructure work here: https://www.somervillema.gov/unionsquareinfrastructure

Starting around April 2019, due to the GLX project, the Washington Street Bridge east of Union Square will be closed through November 2019, and the Medford Street Bridge (below the High School near Gilman Square) will be closed from May – November 2019.

There are a number of ways in which you can get updates about what’s going on with the GLX Project and about street construction projects in Somerville:

City of Somerville GLX Updates -- Receive bi-weekly email updates about the GLX project. To enroll, email [email protected] with “GLX Alerts” in the subject line.

MassDOT/GLX Update Emails -- MassDOT and the GLX team maintain an email list. Emails include upcoming schedules and work information. To sign up visit www.greenlineextension.org  

GLX Project Website -- You can visit www.greenlineextension.org, where full project background materials are also linked.

GLX 24/7 Hotline: This is the best first stop for any questions or concerns. Email them at [email protected], or call the project hotline, which is monitored 24/7: 1-855-GLX-INFO.

City 311 Constituent Services: For basic, city-specific issues related to the GLX, or anything else, contact the 24/7 Constituent Services Office at 311 (or 617-666-3311 from your cell phone).

City of Somerville Construction Team: City staff are available to assist you via [email protected] or 617-666-3311.  This is the best way to get quick, up-to-the-minute, real-time responses to any traffic problems or issues you may encounter in Somerville, and to get a City staff person out onto the street to deal with the problem quickly.

Corner-of-Highland-Cedar.jpg    Cedar_st._neckdown.JPG

Cedar Street to be paved next week

Good news!  Finally, ALL of Cedar Street will be repaved, and construction on it will be done.   Cedar Street was milled this week and then next week, on Wednesday October 17 from Broadway to Highland Avenue, and Thursday, October 18 from Highland Avenue to Elm Street (unless it rains, which would delay the work), Cedar Street will be repaved. Paving operations require full closure of the road, and keeping all traffic off the asphalt for four hours while it cools and hardens.  This will result in more of the unpleasant detours that we have endured for so long, and some streets, such as Hudson Street, will have their direction changed for short periods of time so that abutters can get to their homes from Lowell Street. However, once the paving is done, for the first time in five years, all of Cedar Street -- from Broadway to Elm Street -- will be free from construction & detours.

The Lower Cedar Street water and sewer infrastructure project has almost been completed.  However, I do have some bad news about Hall Street (which runs between Cedar Street and Cherry Street).  I was informed yesterday that Hall Street will NOT be repaved (as was promised a couple of years ago) at this time because both the sewer and water pipes under Hall Street are close to failure and will need to be completely replaced.  This was a major surprise to the Water and Sewer and Engineering Departments and City officials are scrambling to find about $1.1 million to do this work.   There is no timeline yet.  I received a detailed email today from Director of Engineering Rich Raiche about this which I can share with anyone who wants to see it.  Mr. Raiche concluded, “I realize this is a double-whammy for the neighborhood. Not only will the street not be paved this year, but it will also undergo intensive subsurface construction soon. Unfortunately, conditions like this are arising with more frequency as our 19th century pipes are showing their age. If there is any consolation, it may be that we are now looking below the surface to address systematic problems and reduce long-term risk.”  I am sure this is not much consolation to the residents of Hall Street, but aging and failing sewer and water pipes are now part of the reality of living in our wonderful little city.  This will be affecting the quality of life for a lot more people all over Somerville in the coming decades.


Tree slaughter and the need for more open and green space in Somerville

Over the summer and into this fall, there has been much angry public comment and discussion about the loss of trees in Somerville over the past year.  We’ve lost thousands of trees, many of them large mature trees.  These are essentially irreplaceable…at least in my lifetime.  It will take 20-30 years for saplings that are planted now to provide the shade, cooling, oxygen, carbon sequestration, greenery, beauty, etc. that a large tree provides.  But some of the locations in which trees were cut will have buildings or concrete retaining walls covering them, so no trees can be planted there.

In Ward 5, the most devastating loss has been along the railroad tracks opposite Rogers Foam and Vernon Street studios -- alongside the Cambridge Health Alliance parking lot (which is actually owned by the City, FYI) and Junction Park.  Probably the most visible and widespread tree destruction was beside the railroad tracks along Boston Avenue in Medford.  Other places where large number of trees have been cut are on the slope by Gilman Square behind Somerville High School where the new SHS is being constructed, and on Beacon Street.  Some of these cuttings (new SHS) were necessary for an important development project, some were unnecessary and unauthorized (Beacon Street), and some questionable, like the GLX Team cuttings along the railroad tracks. 

The GLX Team announced the tree cuttings along the tracks, but what they didn’t say is that they would cut every single tree all the way up the slope, even on level ground well above the tracks.  If you look at the tree stumps next to the parking lot on Central Street and by Junction Park, you will see what I mean.  They cut all the way up to the barrier and fence, even on land that is pretty flat.  Even if they don’t care about trees (which obviously they don’t) his seems foolish given that once the tree roots rot there is likely to be serious erosion problems which they will have to deal with.  It never occurred to me that the GLX Project would cut ALL the trees, so I didn’t say anything before it happened.  It is clear that the tree cutters ran amok, as evidenced by the fact that they actually cut some trees on PRIVATE land behind properties on Boston Avenue where they had previously spoken with the owners of the properties and agreed they would not cut those particular trees.  Obviously I – and City staff whose job it is to protect and nurture our trees -- should have been more vigilant.  But we have a shortage of City staff to deal with tree issues.

Many community members and Aldermen are tremendously upset by all the tree cutting, the lack of a plan or funds to replace the lost trees, and the Administration’s failure to convene the Urban Forestry Committee which the Board of Aldermen and the Mayor supported in an ordinance passed a year ago.  Fortunately, thanks to consistent community activism and pressure, the Mayor's office requested applications to fill the new Urban Forestry Committee and there have been many.  A few weeks ago, the BOA approved funding for a Senior Urban Forestry & Landscape Planner to oversee green planning and to work with our city Arborist and Tree Warden.

I did file two Board orders about these issues:

That the Director of OSPCD (Transportation and Infrastructure) report to this Board on the depletion of the City’s tree canopy due to development and infrastructure projects with large-scale tree cutting, including the Green Line Extension, Somerville High School, Beacon Street, Cedar Street, and others, and present the Administration’s response to mitigate the harm from these lost trees.

That the Director of OSPCD (Transportation and Infrastructure) report to this Board with an explanation of why not a single tree was spared when the trees were cut along the commuter rail line, including trees far up from the tracks on flat ground by Junction Park and the Central Street parking lot, and what the GLX Team’s plans are to replant trees in that area and to prevent erosion on the hills by the tracks.

I await responses from the Administration, and look forward to public discussion of these and other tree-related issues.  

Another issue on which there has been much public comment and frustration is about adding to the City’s inadequate supply of green and open space and the shortage of athletic field space, especially for youth soccer and other youth sports.  The City’s strategic plan, Somervision, calls for the addition of 125 acres of new open space by about 2030.  There is a general consensus that this is the most challenging goal in the plan.  I will write more about this in the future, but I find it frustrating that the City does not have an open and green space acquisition fund even set up (much less with any money in it) for quick purchases of open space when it becomes available; that there seems to be no real plan as to how the City can get the additional 100 acres to reach our goal; and that large developments are not required to provide more open space or more funds for open space as a condition of their developments.

Citywide zoning overhaul up again; public hearing scheduled for October 30, 6 PM

The Planning Department has submitted a revised version of the proposed Citywide zoning overhaul to the BOA.  This is the third revised version over the past five years.  Zoning determines or impacts density, height of buildings, open space, green space, accessory dwelling units, affordable housing, number of residential units allowed, pervious and impervious surfaces, parking, trees, home additions, and so much more. Zoning determines what can be built and thus will have a major impact on how our city will look and feel in the decades to come.

The Planning Department and the BOA have done a tremendous amount of work on this massive piece of legislation over the past five years.  It has come a long, long way, and I am hoping that all this work will come to fruition in the next six months.  I have not yet had the time to review the new version, but I know from discussion since the last version was released that many of the problems that existed have been worked through. 

Zoning is perhaps the greatest power of the Board of Aldermen: any change in zoning, big or small, requires the votes of 8 of the 11 Aldermen to pass.  That is a heavy lift, especially for a comprehensive piece of legislation that has many controversial parts in it.  It is my belief that this comprehensive zoning overhaul is probably the most important single issue I will deal with in my time as an Alderman. 

I am frequently asked, especially by developers, what are the prospects for passage of the zoning overhaul?  I was not optimistic during the first two rounds, but at this point I am somewhat hopeful.  The truth is, nobody really knows whether 8 Aldermen would vote for something like this in the near future. Ward 6 Alderman Lance Davis, Chair of the Land Use Committee, has said that he hopes to complete work on the zoning overhaul this year.  While I am glad he has set an ambitious goal, I think it will take more time, at least through the first quarter of 2019.  However, as they say, the devil is in the details, and there are a LOT of details in this huge package.  We need to get the most important ones right before I will be willing to support an overall change of this magnitude, even though a change in many aspects of the City’s zoning code is desperately needed.

If you are interested in the zoning overhaul, I encourage you to attend the joint public meeting (not a Public Hearing) of the Planning Board and BOA Land Use Committee for a presentation on the revised zoning overhaul proposal this Tuesday, October 16, 6 PM in City Hall.  (The presentation and video will also be on the City website afterwards.)  There will be a Public Hearing on Tuesday October 30, 6 PM, location to be announced.   Anyone will be allowed to speak that evening to the BOA and the Planning Board for two minutes.  You can send comments to [email protected] and [email protected].  You can find the new, revised submission and a wealth of background information here: https://www.somervillezoning.com/

Important meetings, public hearings and early voting schedule

  • Tuesday, October 16, 6 PM, City Hall, Aldermen’s Chambers -- Joint public meeting of the Planning Board and BOA Land Use Committee of the Whole for a presentation on the proposed citywide zoning overhaul. Also on the agenda for this evening is discussion of the proposed amendment to the Somerville Zoning Ordinance regarding adult-use (recreational) marijuana.   
  • Wednesday, October 17 is the Deadline to register to vote in the November 6th state and federal election. For information on where to vote or how to register to vote in Somerville, go to https://www.somervillema.gov/elections
  • Monday October 22, Ward 5 Resistat meeting. Pizza and schmoozing at 6 PM, meeting begins at 6:30 PM, Center for Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Ave. Please join me, Mayor Curtatone, City department heads & Ward 5 neighbors  to get the latest City news on roadway work in Ward 5, proposed changes to zoning, development, and neighborhood updates. Ask questions & share your concerns (rats, trees, parking, traffic, open space, excessive development, affordable housing) directly with City officials.
  • Monday, September 22, 7 PM, Aldermen’s Chambers, City Hall -- Public Hearing before the BOA Finance Committee of the Whole on the Administration’s request to transfer a 7,000-foot parcel of land (across from the Dunkin Donuts), part of the key D-2 block in Union Square, from the City to the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA), for eventual sale by the City to Union Square master developer US2. The terms of the sale of the D-2 block are spelled out in the Union Square Master Land Disposition Agreement, negotiated and signed by the SRA and US2.
  • Monday, October 22 -Early voting (only at City Hall) for the November 6th state and federal election begins, and goes through Friday November 2, including some evening and weekend hours. Skip the lines and vote early at City Hall!  For the full schedule, see https://www.somervillema.gov/departments/elections/early-voting
  • Tuesday October 30, 6 PM -- Public Hearing on proposed citywide zoning overhaul before the Planning Board and BOA Land Use Committee of the Whole, location to be announced
  • November 6 - Election Day, polls are open 7 AM – 8 PM.


Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Alderman


[email protected]

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