I had written about Rafi Properties original Somernova master plan and zoning amendment petition back in early February, before it was due to come before the Land Use Committee. Then came word Rafi Properties was withdrawing their petition and would be coming back with a revised proposal for the 7.4 acres between Union and Porter squares in Ward 2. While we don't know exactly what this revised proposal will look like, I have my theories based on conversations with the developer and City staff.

Somernova property plan

Firstly, I expect there to be less density in the revised proposal. While I have no problem with height, more density equals more demand for parking. And the amount of parking is a major sticking point for me and many others. Also, I'm not sure what extent this is a factor, but there was some strong pushback from the immediate neighborhood to 12- to 16-story buildings in the original proposal.

If Rafi does come back with less density, this is going to help with the parking problem -- but it's also going to mean less money for community benefits. At the neighborhood meetings so far, I've heard some questions about why developer can't just stick with four stories allowed under the Fabrication zoning and also do the community center. The answer is that they're a for-profit entity looking to do this project to make money, as opposed to being a community-oriented non-profit concerned chiefly with providing benefit to the community. As with any development, community benefits are designed to sweeten the pot and get the community on board with the project. For all the feel-good vibes a developer might look to give off, this is all transactional in nature and I always treat it as such.

After the Rafi Properties withdrew their initial zoning amendment petition, I spoke with them and encouraged them to think creatively about the community uses they want to build into the project. They are one of a number of entities looking at building a community center or integrating community center uses into a larger project. If their focus is on teens and exposure to the "tough tech" sector that would call this proposed development home, I asked them whether they might accomplish that with a smaller, less-expensive Dojo space in the future Somernova site.

This led to a conversation about microtransit, specifically a north-south microtransit route running from Assembly Square to the Mystics to Central Hill to Somernova -- and looping back. (A separate route connecting Union and Porter squares running down Somerville Ave wouldn't be a bad idea either.) This north-south route would provide an easy, frequent connection between the high school -- where I'm proposing we staff up to activate that amazing new building with community center uses -- with the Dojo on site at Somernova. And our city badly needs a north-south transit option.

The other suggestion I made to Rafi was that they shift their community benefits focus in part to the arts & creative enterprises. As we all know, Somerville's arts spaces are under attack by real estate market forces looking to redevelop these spaces as expensive commercial and residential sites. This is part of a regional crisis. It's being felt acutely in the local music scene, where rehearsal spaces are dwindling and increasingly expensive and hard to come by. I asked Rafi whether they might be able to do something to help our arts community, perhaps specifically by creating music rehearsal space, built with that purpose in mind. I'd love to see an increase in Fabrication space as part of this proposal, rather than converting a current Fabrication district almost entirely to commercial uses under an Innovation District designation.

One thing I'll be very curious to see is what Rafi decides to do about housing. We've heard a lot of calls for them to include housing -- either affordable housing or workforce housing -- as part of this project. Though others also have pointed out the great utility of having linkage fees from commercial development for the City to spend on affordable housing creation elsewhere in the city. I don't have strong feelings one way or the other here, so I'll be watching to see how this plays out.

Jake Wilson


Somerville City Councilor-At-Large (he/him/él)