The City Council held our organizational meeting earlier this month, electing Ward 3 Councilor Ben-Ewen Campen as our new President and Ward 7 Councilor Judy Pineda Neufeld as Vice President. Having worked with both colleagues for the past year, I'm excited to have them in these leadership positions and looking forward to seeing where they lead the council.
If you haven't watched the speeches from January 3, I'd encourage you to hear what School Committee Chair Green, President Ewen-Campen, and Mayor Ballantyne each had to say. Each of the three addresses touched on major issues facing our city in 2023, and all are well worth viewing.
There's no such thing as a boring year in local government, and 2023 is looking like a particularly big and busy one in terms of what's expected to come up for public input and governmental decisions. There are a number of important things on the horizon, so I'd like to run through a number of those right here:
299 Broadway TIF
While the proposal to redevelop 299 Broadway (the former Star Market site in Winter Hill) is before the Zoning Board of Appeals, City Council was alerted last month to a potential use of Tax Increment Financing for the project. Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, is a tool used to subsidize a project by granting what amounts to a local property tax break that is gradually phased out over time. I'm looking forward to hearing more specifics, but on the surface this appears to be an opportunity for us to put our money where our mouths are on housing affordability and help make 132 units of truly affordable rentals housing happen on a blighted site in the middle of a neighborhood, close to transit. There will be a public hearing on this at the Finance Committee at 6 PM on February 21.
Your City Council currently is immersed in the process of reviewing the charter proposed by the Charter Review Committee after 16 months of deliberations. It's a massive opportunity to give our city the 21st-century charter we deserve, and I'm honored to get to participate in this. Most of the toughest decisions surround how ambitious we should go with this proposed charter. Time and time again Beacon Hill has demonstrated its dim view of Somerville's previous attempts at bold, progressive policy initiatives, ignoring many of our home rule petitions. So we're deciding to what extent we should swing for the fences here with great things like making 16- and 17-year olds and non-residents eligible to vote in municipal elections. And my pet cause: giving City Council more power by giving us the ability to add to a budget line or make a precise, targeted budget cut stick. Definitely tune into our Charter Review Special Committee meetings and check out the meeting materials here.
Capital Investment Plan
We're expecting to receive an updated Capital Investment Plan (CIP) from City staff in the next month. This critical planning document -- the first since a 2020 update -- will outline the City's plan for major, critically-needed infrastructure investments. I believe it's time to move forward with the renovation of the 1895 Building on Central Hill and build a true campus for City of Somerville employees, who currently are spread out all over the city. The longer that building sits vacant, the worse a candidate it becomes and the higher the costs grow for renovation. The Building Master Plan makes clear the domino effect that renovating the 1895 Building would kick off. This is interrelated with our school buildings, but more on that below.
In New England's most densely-populated city, often the only way to build is up. We've seen areas of the city -- mostly in the eastern half -- "upzoned" or changed to zoning districts that allow greater height to allow mid-rise development. With the arrival of the Green Line last year, it's time to get smart about zoning near T stations and on major arterial streets. I'm especially interested in the possibility of "density bonuses" that essentially trade additional height in new developments in exchange for developers going beyond the 20-percent inclusionary affordable requirement with residential units.
90 Washington Street
With the Public Safety Building in “pens down” mode, attention has shifted to the other development at the site. A Request for Qualifications (RFQ) has gone out to identify a private partner for a high-density, transit-oriented, mixed-use development at 90 Washington. When I've talked to the community about the site, these are the uses that have folks the most excited. Neighbors miss the convenience store and the laundromat that used to exist there and badly want to see the return of businesses to the neighborhood. We're going to need to figure out what to do on the public safety front sooner or later, given the demonstration project plan used to take the property and plans to redevelop our obsolete current PSB at 220 Washington Street. But in the meantime we can figure out the mixed-use development side.
I really hope 2023 will see us take a major step toward getting the community center that almost all residents say we need and almost all electeds say we support. One possible avenue is the creation of a community center by a private developer. I have questions about how access and operations would work, but I'm intrigued by what I've heard so far from a potential private developer who recently held a neighborhood meeting about this. I'd also like to see the City explore doing something publicly, but this might be a little farther away, given other infrastructure plans.
Community Path Extension
There's almost as much anticipation for the imminent opening of the Community Path Extension (CPX) as there was for last year's opening of the Green Line Extension (GLX). We're awaiting the finalization of the language of the lease agreement between the City and the MBTA. The stretch of the CPX on Central Hill behind City Hall, the 1895 Building, and the high school will take a few more months to open, and there should be a bike detour during that time. There are big questions about how the CPX will be maintained -- especially during winter storms -- and real concerns about safety on certain areas of it. We'll need to keep a close eye on things in the months after the CPX opens to see if we have to tweak anything from an operational or policy perspective.
Safe Consumption Site
I was heartened to hear the mayor mention safe consumption sites in her mid-term address last week. I believe we've studied and planned long enough now, and it's time to make this happen. Approximately 15 Somervillians die every year from overdoses, so there's a real urgency to make this happen so we can start saving our neighbors' lives. I understand there is concern in some corners about this approach. But I welcome the opportunity to have a dialogue with folks who are anxious about these overdose prevention centers. If you've got doubts, please get in touch and I'd love to chat with you about it.
New elementary school building
The condition of our school buildings has been a major talking point in recent years, with the City Council hearing this past summer in depressing detail about the unacceptable conditions students and staff at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School put up with on a regular basis. Last Friday the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) announced it is accepting Statements of Interest for funding for the program that paid a significant portion of the costs of our new high school. If Somerville decides to submit an SOI in this cycle, it will start off a process that could see a badly-needed new school building constructed here in our city in the next five to six years. Whether we go the MSBA founding route for the initial study or just pay for that ourselves is something we'll need to decide very shortly.
Linkage fees, or community impact fees, are paid by developers into funds. In Somerville, these revenues go to two trusts: the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the Job Creation and Retention Trust Fund. Large non-residential developments here are subject to these linkage fees that currently sit at $11.23/sq ft (Housing) and $2.75/sq ft (Jobs). Given the commercial development explosion in our city, there's a movement to consider raising linkage fees more in line with Cambridge (increased to $33.34/sq ft this past fall) and Boston ($15.39/sq ft currently, but likely to increase this year). I expect to see the City Council take this up this year.
Highland Ave Redesign
The Spring Hill Sewer Separation Project work is moving along, bringing us closer to the redesign of Highland Ave. Based on the contentiousness we've already seen around this and the smaller-scale Holland Street redesign project, I expect this to garner major public interest. While I can understand a reluctance to take up a potentially controversial project in an election year, I believe we need to start the process of figuring out how to redesign Highland Ave in a way that maximizes public benefit and minimizes aggregate pain. To do this successfully, it's going to take a lot of engagement with the Highland Ave business community and a creative, detail-oriented approach that solves for as many problems as possible.
Bicycle Network Plan
The City released the draft of the Bicycle Network Plan last year and sought feedback from the public. If you missed that opportunity to comment on the draft plan, you always can share your comments with City staff. As with anything involving cycling infrastructure on our narrow streets, there's a tension with on-street parking. We've seen our local small business owners voice anxiety about the loss of parking, so this is another case where engagement by City staff will be key to success. If we want to make our city one where adults and kids can get around on a bike without fearing for their lives, this sort of holistic planning is a must.
90-92 Union Square eviction
The situation involving the Somerville Media Center and Mass Alliance of Portuguese Speakers and their recent notices to vacate their offices at the old fire station at 90-92 Union Square became a major discussion point at last week's first City Council meeting of 2023. I appreciated my colleagues' comments on the importance of these organizations in our city and the need for a positive resolution here. As I said last Thursday, I see all the ingredients here for a good solution, with developers in Union Square looking for tenants to fill the Arts and Creative Enterprise (ACE) space they're required to build. I'm hopeful that we'll see everyone brought to the table to arrive at a good outcome for all parties.
The long-awaited police staffing & operations study is expected this winter. I'm particularly interested in some of the details on the operations side. Meanwhile, there's movement on the civilian oversight front, with the formation of the Civilian Oversight Task Force. You can apply to serve on that task force here. The City Council likely will revisit the question of body-worn cameras, hopefully with a policy informed by best practices elsewhere. I'm putting together a panel discussion next month in the Public Health and Public Safety Committee to discuss unarmed civilian response or alternative emergency response, featuring folks from around the state and country who have started up these programs in other cities. Against the backdrop of all of this, our search for a new police chief continues.
Davis Square redevelopment
Some news articles last year discussed a pair of proposed developments in Davis Square that would displace existing businesses. There's a lot of worry from the community that beloved local businesses like Sligo, McKinnon's, and Dragon Pizza -- to name three -- could disappear as a result of the Scape's proposed life science development with ground floor restaurant and retail space. Following conversations with the impacted businesses and City staff, I'm honestly not sure what the future holds for this proposal in these uncertain economic times. Conversely, Asana's 7th Spoke life science, retail, and restaurant proposal seems to be moving toward reality, and the good news is I've been informed that every existing business except one (the pawn shop) has been permanently relocated or has plans to temporarily relocate during construction and return to a space in the new development.
Our arts scene is feeling the squeeze with local artists being forced out of studio space, as our supply of arts space gets gobbled up for development. Developers contributions to Arts and Creative Enterprise (ACE) space aren't keeping up with the rate of loss of existing ACE space. And with nothing regulating the price at which ACE space is rented, new ACE space often is beyond the reach of artists who require affordable studio space. We have an arts overlay district in Union Square and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council released the Somerville Art Space Risk Assessment report last year. It's time we implement the recommendations from that report. In particular, I'd like to see us reform the ACE definition in line with the MAPC report's recommendation, as the current definition has proven problematic in our city around co-working office space in the past.
Neighborhood strategic planning
The Assembly Square Neighborhood Plan, Brickbottom Small Area Plan, and Davis Square Commercial Area Plan all have been in the works for a while. I think it's reasonable to expect to see these processes bear fruit this year, and these will be important steps for each of these areas of the city. And Union Square East is in the pipeline as well. We have to ensure we have a big-picture vision prior to going about making potentially impactful changes to parts of our city. There will be disagreement and debate over aspects of these plans, and we'll need to make sure these go through rigorous, productive public processes. This is something I'd strongly encourage residents to keep a close eye on.
One thing that has me extremely excited about 2023 is the arrival of a rental registry in Somerville, similar to what Boston already has. This invaluable tool is going to allow us to do a lot of amazing things and have a wide-ranging positive impact on the community. In addition to giving us actual, solid data on what's happening with our estimated 23,000 rental housing units, this rental registry will unlock the ability to do everything from enforcement of ordinances and code to affordable rental incentivization. We'll need to be mindful of unintended consequences like the impact on our immigrant community, but this is a major step forward for us as a city.
The move toward electrification has created a need for increased capacity for our electric grid. Unfortunately, plans to expand the current Eversource substation in Union Square have collided with potential future expansion of public transit. Whether we're talking about adding a stop to the Fitchburg Line of the Commuter Rail or extending the Green Line's Union Square spur to Porter Square, an expanded substation on Prospect Street is a potential blocker. There also are questions about the routes of underground transmission lines, with Cambridge resident concerns and Eversource convenience winning out to date over Somerville's preferences for the route. Ideally, we'd see a new substation built in a more appropriate location, but I understand the challenges this poses. Eversource's proposal will be going before the Planning Board, and I'll definitely be following that process closely.
MWRA stormwater planning
Last month the City of Somerville, City of Cambridge, and Massachusetts Water Resource Authority held a joint public meeting on the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control Plan. Unfortunately, the number of Somerville residents who attended (38) was overmatched by the number from Arlington (46) and Cambridge (41). We want to make sure our community's concerns are heard as we go about addressing a regional issue. If you filled out the CSO survey that closed on January 5, thank you. This will be an important initiative to watch as it moves forward, and I'll make sure to promote opportunities for the Somervillians to be involved.
The schoolyard renovation project at West Somerville Neighborhood School is going full steam ahead. Meanwhile, the Brown School Schoolyard Renovation is scheduled for this summer. These projects continue the long-term strategy of giving our elementary schools top-quality schoolyards for students of all ages. And these schoolyards are used by the entire neighborhood outside of school hours, so they're vital recreational resources. With key decisions looming on school buildings, it's important that schoolyards aren't left out of the conversation.
Collective Bargaining Agreements
Like many, I was thrilled with the labor agreement reached with the Somerville Educators Union last year. Compared to the labor strife we've been seeing in nearby districts, it's great to see that not playing out here locally in Somerville. But there are a number of other collective bargaining agreements currently in negotiation between the City and other City employee bargaining units. The City Council will be looking for updates on these negotiations, though these will have to take place in executive session, given the subject matter. I'll be very curious to hear how family and medical leave benefits end up being negotiated, given all the discussion we've had at the council level about potentially opting in as a city to the state Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML).
Approved as part of the FY 2023 budget and augmented by a supplemental appropriation this fall, there's now a full $1 million set aside for participatory budgeting this year. We've seen similar initiatives done next door in Cambridge. The challenges are going to revolve around how to avoid this being performative and how to ensure it's done equitably. But I do like pretty much anything that gets the public more informed and engaged on municipal budgets, so I'm looking forward to seeing this in action shortly.
City Council Shared Budget Priorities
The process of identifying and conveying the City Council's top shared budget priorities to the Administration is happening again this winter. The process I came up with last year had its ups and downs at times, but it ultimately got us to our goal with 10 shared budget priority resolutions. And I've already been meeting with key stakeholders to go over the postmortem from last year and working on refining things for the second time around. We're looking at a date in late March for the meeting where we'll convene at a Committee of the Whole (the full council) to arrive at agreement on our shared budget priorities and hammer out specifics.
FY 2024 Budget Season
With warmer weather comes Budget Season, when we go through the grueling-but-vital process of examining, cutting, re-evaluating, and ultimately approving the budget for the next fiscal year. We're looking at starting earlier on the calendar and doing departmental hearings across more nights to cut down on the number of late nights for councilors, clerks, staff, and the public following along. Given some of the innovations we introduced last year when we set a modern record for efficiency in Budget Season and some additional tweaks, I believe we can efficiently and expeditiously perform our duties of financial oversight without getting bleary-eyed in five- and six-hour meetings.
We'll be tackling all of these things while re-applying for our jobs with municipal elections set for this fall. The at-large race looks like it will be extremely competitive with five experienced councilors running for four seats. So I'm looking to build up my campaign bank balance to make sure money isn't a determining factor. Anything you're able to contribute is hugely appreciated!
Click here to donate -- and thank you for your support!
I'm holding office hours again this Sunday afternoon via Zoom from 3 to 5 PM. (Please note the afternoon time due to a conflict with my normal Sunday morning hours.)
Also, I'll continue to offer on-demand office hours in 2023 to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
The Week Ahead
City Council committee meetings are back in earnest and I've got a packed week ahead of me. Here's what I'll be attending in the coming week:
- Monday, January 23: Traffic and Parking Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Tuesday, January 24: Finance Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Wednesday, January 25: Charter Review Special Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Thursday, January 26: City Council regular meeting (7 PM)
Until next week -- when the newsletter returns in a more familiar format,
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