I get asked about Highland Avenue multiple times a week. While there's some disagreement on what we all want to see done with Highland Ave, one thing everyone agrees on is that the current state of it isn't acceptable. And since it went quiet on the City's side after that Highland Avenue Redesign Project community meeting back in November 2021, there's a large segment of the city wondering what's happening there.
Earlier this month, the Administration announced the process had been "put on hold" since that meeting nearly two years ago. This work was supposed to dovetail with the Spring Hill Sewer Separation project that's set to wrap up next year. I'm alarmed to see us lose two years at this point, and it might end up being an even longer delay.
This latest project update says we're now looking at funding project design in Fiscal Year 2026 and not starting construction until FY 2027. That represents a three-year delay from the process originally laid out in 2021 that had construction work beginning next year. As you can imagine, I'm not at all happy about this.
I fully understand this work is contentious, with community voices advocating loudly for very different visions for a new Highland Ave. I've always maintained that the City needs to do its homework here by working with local businesses to get an accurate picture of their curb use (parking, loading zones, etc.) needs, and I've heard encouraging things from businesses about the work that's been done to date. If the City is able to gather good information on this, I believe prioritizing active use of Highland Ave to meet these needs and turning over parking every day will result in successful project.
Meanwhile, it turns out we won't need to wait years to address the terrible condition of the street surface, as the City is moving forward with resurfacing the eastern portion of Highland Ave following the completion of the subsurface utility work. Although I'm somewhat skeptical of this move being used to buy more time for the Highland Ave Redesign work and leery of any potential waste of taxpayer dollars if any repaved portions end up being at odds with the eventual new design, I do ultimately support this resurfacing work, given the dangerous current conditions.
But now here's the important bit: I believe there's an opportunity right now to potentially reduce the project delay. The City's recent upgrade to a AAA bond rating is allowing us to do more with our borrowing. Last week's Highland Avenue Redesign Project update included a mention of an updated Capital Investment Plan this fall. So I'm asking you to please email [email protected] and advocate for prioritizing the Highland Avenue Redesign Project in the forthcoming update to the CIP, and that the Administration request approval of funds for design services to resume that public process.
And now some additional things I'd like to highlight:
Winter Hill School funding
True to our word, the City Council held a special meeting Thursday night during our summer recess to approve five funding requests from the Administration related to the Winter Hill Community Innovation School. These requests totaled just over $4.8 million and will be used to prepare the Edgerly School to host the Winter Hill School community this coming school year, following their displacement from their own building last month.
In Thursday night's meeting, I asked Infrastructure and Asset Management Director Rich Raiche about how they're approaching decisions on building out the Edgerly space, given the uncertainty around the duration of the WHCIS community's stay in the building. I also asked Finance Director Ed Bean about the current and future impacts of the WHCIS situation on the city's long-term strategic planning around capital projects. You can hear their responses and the entire discussion in the video recording of the meeting here.
The Idaho Stop
Last week I co-sponsored with City Council President Ben Ewen-Campen a resolution calling for de-prioritizing the enforcement of certain traffic regulations for cyclists. The goal is a de facto legalization of what is known around the country as "The Idaho Stop": a change in traffic regulations that effectively turns STOP signs into YIELD signs for cyclists and also allows them to treat red lights like blinking red lights and proceed through after stopping. These are common sense measures that recognize the realities of biking and make the streets safer for everyone, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a fact sheet on this.
I had some constituents reach out with questions and concerns after a certain local tabloid mischaracterized the resolution. Most of these folks were reassured after hearing that requirements of cyclists to stop at red lights and yield as appropriate under the law wouldn't be impacted in any way by this change. If you have any remaining questions or concerns, please get in touch and I'd be happy to go over with you why I think this would be a great step forward for our city.
State House Testimony
Last week I testified before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy at the State House in support of H.3227 and S.2093, An Act Expanding Access to the Fossil Fuel Free Demonstration Project. When the state announced the creation of this demonstration project, it capped participation at 10 communities. I was there to advocate for expanding the project beyond that initial cap, to allow more Environmental Justice communities like Somerville to participate.
Building emissions account for the lion's share of our carbon emissions here in Somerville, so we have a major task ahead of us in terms of bringing our existing building inventory up to snuff. So it only makes sense to stop digging ourselves into a deeper hole by continuing to construct new buildings with fossil fuel infrastructure. I'm hopeful Somerville and the other communities are allowed to join this pilot and require all-electric construction in new buildings.
- fixing the Special Heavy Motor Equipment Operator position qualifications and compensation to fill long-vacant positions in Water & Sewer, saving the department money and reducing future water and sewer rate increases
- allowing union employees of the City's Constituent Services (311) Division to join their preferred Somerville Municipal Employees Association (SMEA) bargaining unit, Unit B.
- updating the language in the new collective bargaining agreement with the Somerville Police Employees Association (SPEA) to require that all details be filled by "sworn officers" (instead of the current "sworn police officers" language) to allow our Parking Control Officers (who are sworn officers) to take these important and high-paying detail shifts that SPD officers can't fill
More and more workers are standing up for themselves and demanding better working conditions and improved compensation after decades of real wage growth only for the wealthiest Americans, this is overdue and a good thing. That's one of the reasons I put in an order requesting that the Law Department update the City Council on the status of the many collective bargaining negotiations happening with our public sector unions. With the City struggling to attract and retain workers in a tight labor market, it's crucial that we do right by the people who make this city run.
Mystic River Bridge update
Good news: A bike and pedestrian bridge connecting Assembly Square (Draw Seven Park, technically) with the Northern Strand Trail in Everett has reached the 75-percent design stage. This important piece of infrastructure will provide a vital link between components of the regional bike trail network, as well as opening up Assembly Square and the T station to Everett across the Mystic River.
Now for the bad news: The latest plan has seen the width of the bridge deck reduced from 14 feet to 12 feet. As we know from the recent opening of the Community Path Extension, path width matters. There are ambitious plans for an entertainment district on part of the site of the Mystic Generating Station recently sold at auction -- including a rumored soccer-specific stadium for the New England Revolution -- so this bridge could see extremely heavy traffic. I believe it would be a mistake to cut back on the width of the bridge deck in pursuit of cost savings, given the high potential traffic -- both bike and pedestrian -- that it stands to see.
I'm calling on the Department of Conservation and Recreation and MassDOT to host public meetings about the project. Please join me in calling for a restoration of the original 14-foot bridge deck.
Overdose Prevention Center
As we see more and more lives lost to overdose in Somerville, the planned overdose prevention center can't open soon enough. These facilities are proven to save lives, with a goal of keeping people alive until a time when they're ready to accept help, at which point the wraparound services in place can do their thing.
I understand the concept of an overdose prevention center raises questions and concerns. If you're struggling with getting on board with this approach or have questions, please reach out. I'd be happy to share exactly why I think this is a necessary approach.
While I've been frustrated with the slow pace of implementation of some clear community demands following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, I'm pleased to see recent movement on civilian oversight. This is an absolute no-brainer to address concerns of police accountability and to increase the likelihood that policing conforms to our community's values.
The Department of Racial and Social Justice's Civilian Oversight Task Force is holding three upcoming public listening sessions for the community to weigh in on this important issue:
Rent Stabilization listening session
During the 2021 campaign I advocated for a simple form of rent stabilization that capped year-on-year rent increases for returning tenants at seven percent. I didn't hear a single objection to this proposal, mostly because good landlords already are following this to reduce costly and time-consuming tenant churn. Boston recently submitted a home rule petition to the state for rent stabilization and just cause eviction, and I'd love to see Somerville follow Boston's lead.
This past week, the City's Anti-Displacement Task Force held a listening session on the topic of rent stabilization for property owners. I want to thank everyone who showed up, and particularly those who spoke in favor of common-sense rent stabilization. A second listening session -- this one for renters and their advocates -- will be held on Thursday, July 27 at 5:30 PM virtually and at the Armory (191 Highland Avenue). Registration is required and the deadline is Tuesday, July 25 at 5 PM.
Summer construction updates
The closure of Highland Avenue to eastbound traffic between School Street and Walnut Street -- and resulting detour of eastbound traffic down Central Street onto Medford Street -- resumed last week. The detour is estimated to remain in effect for around three months to allow for subsurface utility improvements.
The Community Path Extension (CPX) detour at Central Hill also remains in effect due to construction work on Reavis Field at the high school. I'm hopeful this stretch of the CPX can be opened at last in the fall.
Every two years the City of Somerville surveys the community to try to determine how we're feeling in general, and how satisfied we are with the City's services. When the previous administration rolled out the Happiness Survey in 2011, it got a lot of media attention. I like that our City does this, as I believe there's a real value in asking folks "How are you doing?" and "How's your city doing?" and compiling data on that.
I just filled out the Happiness Survey this morning and I'd encourage you to do the same. It's a great opportunity to talk about the issues that you see as impacting your quality of life and enjoyment of Somerville. You can return your paper copy of the Happiness Survey being mailed out to residents or complete the survey online. Responses are being accepted through August 15.
Armory public meetings
The taking of the Armory by eminent domain in 2021 resulted in the City becoming the landlord of one of our most important community spaces. The City currently is creating a master plan for the Armory, and as part of this process there will be two in-person public meetings on Monday, June 24, at Rooted Cafe at the Armory (191 Highland Avenue):
Note: The cafe's capacity will limit both sessions to 40 attendees maximum, so early arrival is encouraged to ensure a spot.
Red Sox disability event
The Boston Red Sox are holding their annual Disability Pride Celebration on Wednesday, July 26. The Somerville Commission for Persons with Disabilities has a ticket allotment for the event, and Somerville residents who self-identify as a person with disability are eligible to reserve a ticket for themselves and a guest.
Click here for more information.
SomerMovie Fest 2023 schedule
We're three weeks into the City's Thursday night summer movie series, Weather permitting, the City of Somerville is offering free outdoor screenings of movies for the community. So bring the popcorn and come watch with your neighbors.
- July 27 (8:42 PM): Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory @ Seven Hills Park
- August 3 (8:33 PM): Top Gun: Maverick @ Seven Hills Park
- August 10 (8:24 PM): Strange World @ Seven Hills Park
- August 17 (8:13 PM): Clueless @ Seven Hills Park
The ballot for this year's elections has been finalized. There are five experienced at-large councilors running for the four at-large seats. I'd love to keep doing this, so I'll do my part to get the word out to voters. If you're interested in helping me get re-elected by knocking doors, hosting a gathering, or sharing your support on social media, please reply to this email.
If you'd like to donate to my re-election campaign fund, you can do that here.
If you or someone you know is interested in joining me in working for the City of Somerville, please take a look at the City of Somerville positions and Somerville Public Schools openings currently posted.
Did You Know...
MassDOT maintains a website with information on state construction projects at Mass511.com.
I'm continuing to hold office hours on Sunday mornings during the City Council's summer recess -- with the exceptions of August 7 and 14, when I'll be on vacation. This week's office hours will take place on Sunday, July 23, from 10 AM to noon on Zoom.
If you'd prefer to meet individually, I'm also continuing to offer on-demand office hours to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
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