Over the next few months, Somerville's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) is going to be taking up one of its most consequential decisions in recent memory. It concerns a development project that has large numbers of people around the city excited but some immediate neighbors leery.
The project in question is officially known by its address, 299 Broadway, but most people refer to it as "The Old Star Market Site in Winter Hill." As a neighbor of this site who shopped at that Star Market prior to its closure in 2008, I know all too well how the blighted property has impacted Winter Hill. And I'm eager to see something done with it.
When a previous proposal just before the pandemic failed to gain traction, the Somerville Redevelopment Authority moved ahead with an urban renewal plan that received state approval. But prior to taking the site by eminent domain, the SRA determined that an existing proposal by a private developer meets the criteria and is giving that development a chance to proceed.
The developer in question is Mark Development. They're a new name in Somerville, but impressed right away by bringing in highly-regarded partners, engaging the neighborhood, and incorporating feedback from public meetings into the project. As the proposal took shape, it drew a lot of support for its 250-plus units of housing, ground floor activation of commercial space, community and open space, and sustainability.
Then came a curveball: the discovery of large amounts of asbestos buried on the site earlier this year. I feared this would be the end of the road for the proposal, but Mark Development instead brought in Beacon Communities and came back with a proposal for a zero-parking development with pretty much a 50/50 split of affordable and market rate housing. We are talking about 132 affordable rental units at a range of income levels -- and with a large number of two- and three-bedroom units. This is exactly what I've been calling for in our city, so I joined a lot of folks in being ecstatic about this.
Mark Development was able to remove all on-site parking thanks to the previous City Council removing parking minimums for new residential construction within half a mile of MBTA stations -- in this case the Gilman Square Station opening next week, just down Marshall Street from the site. However, to prevent developers from just dumping demand for residential parking onto surrounding streets, there's also a regulation on the books that makes residents of these new residential developments in transit walk sheds ineligible for resident parking permits.
The developer then announced they were going the Chapter 40B route with the project. Chapter 40B is a state-level mechanism for affordable housing development that makes the local ZBA the decision-making body. And Mark Development announced that as part of their application, they were going to be asking for a waiver for 78 residential parking permits, equal to 50% of the project's 156 market rate units. This is in addition to the residents of the 132 affordable units being automatically eligible for resident parking permits via individual waivers of the regulation. (Residents of market rate units with accessibility needs also will be automatically eligible for individual waivers.)
Ward 4 councilor Jesse Clingan and I have requested the most analogous data on private vehicle ownership rates in affordable housing in the region, but a safe guess is that granting this parking permit waiver would result in a total of somewhere between 150 and 250 additional vehicles looking for on-street parking. In a meeting this summer, I requested to see data on on-street parking utilization on nights and weekends, and it showed 100 percent utilization in the streets immediately surrounding the development.
As a result, we find ourselves in a situation where this project is set to deliver an immense amount of good for our city as a whole, but is asking the immediate neighborhood to shoulder the burden of a dramatic spike in on-street parking demand. While it's true that in the most optimistic scenario we are years away from the first residents moving in and exacerbating street parking conditions there -- and by then we could see a drop in private vehicle ownership in the area due to the Green Line Extension -- it's clear that approval of this project will mean pain for neighbors who rely on street parking.
That's why I've pushed Mark Development to explore agreements with the owners of nearby surface parking lots to acquire rights to private, off-street parking for their future residents. There are some large surface lots within a block of 299 Broadway that would fit the bill. Not only would every off-street parking spot help ease the potential parking crunch that much, but I believe this would be best for future residents of the development as well.
So far I've yet to hear of any such agreements being reached, but I'm continuing to push Mark Development on this, and I hope the ZBA does as well -- regardless of how they decide on the waiver request for resident parking permits for market rate units. I view this as helping the developer by encouraging them to improve their project by making their rental properties more attractive to potential tenants.
The first ZBA meeting about this development was going to be this past week, but that's been pushed back to Wednesday, December 14 at 6 PM. There will be a series of ZBA meetings about this project in the coming months, including one in January that I expect will be largely devoted to the parking issue. Whether you're a neighbor in Winter Hill or have an interest in housing and affordability, restaurants and retail, sustainability, or mobility in our city, I hope you'll join me in attending these hugely important ZBA meetings.
Here are some other key things happening around Somerville:
'Tis the season! There are numerous holiday events scheduled around the city in the coming weeks:
- Holiday Lighting & Santa Visit: Thursday, Dec. 8 @ 5 PM (City Hall)
- 8th Annual Union Square Holiday Stroll: Saturday, Dec. 10 @ 12 - 6 PM (Union Square)
- Citywide Caroling: Thursday, Dec. 15 @ 6 - 8 PM (various locations)
- Illuminations Bike Tour: Saturday, Dec. 17 @ 5:45 PM (depart from City Hall)
- Menorah Lighting: Sunday, Dec. 18 @ 5 PM (City Hall)
In addition, the Somerville Arts Council will be unveiling the 2022 Illuminations Tour map later this week, for those who wish to make their way around the city to see holiday decorations on their own. You can sign up here through the end of the day to have your decorated home or business included on the Illuminations Tour. The signup form for caroling acts for Citywide Caroling is open through Sunday, December 11.
Avoid a big spike in your electric bill!
Eversource recently proposed a roughly 43-percent increase in its basic residential service electricity supply rate, effective January 1. Electricity supply is only part of the cost you pay for electricity, but it's estimated this rate change will increase a typical Eversource customer's electricity bills by about 23 percent in the new year.
The City of Somerville's Community Choice Electric (CCE) program offers far cheaper rates for electricity. And for less than an extra penny per kilowatt hour you can choose the Somerville Local Green option that adds a higher component of green electricity. My household pays a little extra for the Somerville 100% Green option that's still significantly cheaper than the new Eversource residential rate while providing us even greener electricity. Learn more about CCE and learn how to switch ahead of the looming January 1 rate increase here.
Municipal broadband discussion
Want to hear where we're at as far as municipal broadband here in Somerville? Fittingly, you're going to need a good Internet connection to do that. The City Council's Public Works and Public Utilities Committee will be taking up the issue of municipal broadband at their meeting tonight (Monday, December 5) at 6 PM. I'm not on this committee, but please join me in attending virtually via GoToWebinar to hear the discussion.
Davis Square redevelopment
I'm asked almost every day about the planned re-developments in Davis Square. For those who aren't familiar with these projects, there are two proposed developments right in the heart of Davis:
- Asana's 7th Spoke project at Davis Square Plaza
- Scape's project at 231-249 Elm Street & 6-8 & 12 Grove Street
When I've met with developers, City staff, and businesses impacted by these proposals, my message has been consistent: We need to find a way to give Davis Square the transit-oriented development it deserves as a transit hub while also protecting the culture of small, locally-owned businesses that differentiate it from other places in the area. I feel positive about the 7th Spoke project in that sense. Right now I'm more concerned about how the Scape project will play out, as the businesses currently located there seem to be very much in the dark. Stay tuned for more on this.
Forgivable loans for small business
Speaking of our beloved local small businesses, there's a new program designed to help out businesses impacted by COVID-19. Powered by ARPA funding, Somerville's Small Business Recovery Fund offers forgivable loans of up to $15,000 for locally-owned businesses.
Healey schoolyard opens
We all love a ribbon cutting, but the one this past Wednesday for the Healey School's new schoolyard was particularly important to me personally. Prior to getting elected last year, this was something I had worked on for years, rallying the community to advocate for this project. And I got emotional when speaking at the event because of what it means to the school and the neighborhood. We're not used to good things happening in this area of the city, so this is a big, big deal to us.
The kids at the Healey now find themselves with a schoolyard on par with anything else in the region, with amazing play structures (including for older students!) and a new U12-sized soccer field (coming in the spring) replacing a large swath of asphalt that used to make up the schoolyard. But this also transforms the neighborhood, right there next door to the high-density Mystic River Development. I'm so thankful to the community for organizing around this, for the electeds who heard our voices, and for City staff for executing this vision!
New teen spaces open
The Mayor and the Parks and Recreation Department have opened two teen centers for our city's youth:
- Edgerly Education Center: open weekdays 2:30 - 8 PM (12:30 to 8 PM on early release days)
- Art Haus @ Powderhouse Circle Committee Room: theater programming Monday/Friday 6 - 8 PM & Parks and Rec programming Tuesdays 3 - 5 PM
Registration is required, but is free and available online -- and also can be done on site. I toured the program at the Edgerly Center last week and was extremely impressed by the programming, structure, and attendance. There looked to be upward of 100 participants playing volleyball, working on music, and just hanging out. Kudos to City staff for pulling this off!
The City recently released the Citywide Flood Mitigation and Water Quality Master Plan. It's a long document, but fairly accessible to those of us without engineering backgrounds. The top priority is the neighborhood near Foss Park, including residents of Fellsway West, Wheatland Street, and Jaques Street, and I know from talking to residents while knocking doors in that neighborhood that flooding is a real issue there. If you live in that area and have been forced to deal with flood damage, please email [email protected] with specifics -- dates, damage, resulting expenses, and descriptions of the flooding.
Meanwhile, there are two upcoming flooding-related things:
- At our Tuesday night meeting, the City Council's Finance Committee will be taking up borrowing $89.3 million for the Poplar Street Pump Station. This is then expected to go before the entire City Council on Thursday night for a vote on the bond.
- The cities of Somerville and Cambridge and the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) are holding a joint meeting on Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) control planning on Thursday, December 15 at 6 PM. You can register to attend via Zoom here.
Winter is coming!
We're into December, so snow is on the way. Be prepared for what that means for Somerville residents, workers, and businesses with this guide from the City of Somerville. And remember this winter we'll be doing even side parking during snow emergencies!
Need shoveling help? The City's Teen Snow Shoveling Program assists seniors and those with disabilities with clearing snow after a snow event. The program currently is accepting applications from 13- to 19- year olds. If you need this program's assistance, click here for the homeowner application and here for the required CORI form.
I recently turned 46, so I'm jumping on the popular birthday fundraiser bandwagon. If you're so inclined and want to join in with a corresponding donation of $46 to my campaign account, I'd be hugely appreciative!
Click here to donate -- and thank you for your support!
Mattress & household hazardous waste disposal
Just a reminder that as of November 1, a state-wide waste disposal ban has gone into effect on textiles and mattresses. Earlier this year the City of Somerville began offering curbside mattress and box spring recycling, and continues to offer curbside textile recycling through a partnership with Simple Recycling.
The City also resumed household hazardous waste collection with dropoff disposal once again available. You can bring certain types and quantities of hazardous waste from your household to the DPW yard at 1 Franey Road on Thursdays this month between 4 and 7:30 PM. Click here for full details.
Pitch in with MAMAS
I was honored to volunteer with the MAMAS Free Store last month, connecting those in need with free, gently-used clothing in East Somerville. A group of us met up at dawn to help transport goods from storage spaces to the pop-up location at the entrance of the East Somerville Community School. It was phenomenal to see everyone turning out to lend a hand. Many hands truly make light work.
Mutual Aid Medford & Somerville (MAMAS) continues stepping in to fill the gap left by our federal and state governments' failure to meet the needs of our society. It shouldn't fall on the shoulders of you and me to make charitable contributions to meet the needs of our neighbors, but it does. So until that gets addressed, I hope you'll join me in supporting the fine work of MAMAS. Please consider donating to their Holiday Gift Drive.
Join the City Clerk's office!
Our City Clerk's office currently is hiring for two important positions:
- The Assistant Clerk of Committees works with the City Council, covering our committee meetings and regular meetings.
- The new Administrative Assistant for Boards & Commissions position will provide much-needed administrative support to our city's vital multiple-member bodies.
Apply for those or any of the many other City of Somerville positions and Somerville Public Schools openings currently posted.
Boards & Commissions openings
The following multiple-member bodies currently are seeking new appointments:
Did You Know...
Curious how the City of Somerville is spending our (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) windfall? There's a dashboard with detailed reporting on ARPA fans committed and spent.
If there's something you'd like to chat about with me and/or your fellow constituents, I offer office hours on Sunday mornings. Given the wintry forecast for this weekend we'll be sticking to Zoom this week. Join us between 10 AM and noon Sunday!
Also, I continue to offer on-demand office hours to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
The Week Ahead
The City Council goes on holiday recess after Thursday night's meeting, but there's plenty happening ahead of that:
- Tuesday, Dec. 6: Finance Committee meeting @ 6 PM
- Wednesday, Dec. 7: Charter Review Special Committee public hearing @ 6 PM
- Thursday, Dec. 8: City Council regular meeting @ 7 PM
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