Part 3: Somerville by Design
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Making Somerville “walkable” isn’t just about making neighborhoods pleasant places to walk. It’s about creating a built environment that will attract investment and businesses, bring jobs and services, and generate property tax revenue to ease the burden on Somerville homeowners while paying for what we need. It’s also about empowering ‘Villens to preserve their neighborhoods, whose character often seems under attack by those who want to force outsized and out-of-character developments on them.
During these constrained fiscal times, it’s easy to ridicule consultants who study how communities can make their neighborhoods walkable, a feat that our ancestors achieved without much reflection. It’s also myopic.
The evidence of 94,000 real estate transactions in 15 real estate markets unequivocally demonstrates the “walkability dividend.” Cities that encourage walkable neighborhoods enjoy higher property values and lower municipal service costs. Wise planning, faithfully executed, will enrich our community while avoiding perpetual and unnecessary maintenance costs and liability risks.
Wise planning defined SomerVision. For over two years, hundreds of people attended 50 meetings and contributed thousands of hours. City staff produced rich data and insightful analysis, providing an objective basis on which neighborhood advocates, business people, nonprofit administrators and public officials resolved conflicting interests and perceptions to find common ground. Their product is the Comprehensive Plan that the city adopted in April 2012.
Too often, celebrated plans generate publicity and encourage high hopes, only to subsequently gather dust. But SomerVision laid out six concrete Implementation Priorities. One of them is to develop design-based plans for the areas surrounding future Green Line stations. Another is to replace Somerville’s whimsical zoning ordinance with one that can enforceably codify the vision, values and objectives of the Comprehensive Plan.
The advent of the Green Line provides rich opportunities to breathe new life into the commercial corridors that formed Old Somerville’s neighborhood centers, and to enhance their connectivity. Somerville By Design is creating urban design plans for Gilman Square, Lowell Street/ Magoun Square and Ball Square.
As with SomerVision, the process has been fully participatory. Residents and business owners tell city officials and planning consultants what they like, don’t like, and want for their neighborhoods. The staff and consultants draft designs and seek reactions from the community.
Among the consultants are urban design professors and students from MIT. They’ve offered innovative suggestions regarding wayfinding,
signage, pedestrian improvements, traffic calming, bus and bike routes, air quality, storm water management, public space design, economic development, zoning, and parking, all of which are viewable at the Somerville By Design webpage.
Many of their suggestions are pragmatic and can be cost effectively implemented. Some seem unrealistic. For example, it’s hard to imagine market conditions or government funding that could pay for structured parking in Winter Hill and Magoun Square.
We know that this participatory design process can produce effective results, because we’ve done it before. Thirty years ago, neighbors, city staff, and consultants created the Davis Square Action Plan to realize the opportunities brought by a new Red Line station. On balance, its implementation has served us well. Last night Somerville By Design brought neighbors together to begin planning the Square for the next thirty years.
Meanwhile, city officials freely acknowledge that our current Zoning Ordinance is not serving us well. They identify four challenges:
- It doesn’t provide clear and unambiguous guidance.
- Residential district regulations are not preserving neighborhoods’ unique character.
- Current zoning can’t maximize the economic development and smart growth opportunities created by transit stations.
- Effective responses to the second and third challenges depend on resolving the first one.
If you’ve ever tried to improve your own property, or to oppose the grotesque violations of neighborhood character that I frequently write about, you know what I mean.
City staff is working with neighbors, business owners and city officials to produce a zoning ordinance that will enable us to fully implement SomerVision, preserve what we love about our neighborhoods, and encourage investment.
The SomerVision and Somerville By Design planning processes are rare for their inclusion and innovation. The price of admission is simply participation. I believe that subsequent attacks on the resulting plans by those who were unwilling to participate shouldn’t merit much attention.
Thus far, this “Walkable Somerville” series has not asked the question, “Walkable for whom?” Answering it is critical to honest policy considerations in two senses. First, if our efforts to enrich our built environment create a Somerville in which people who grew up here can’t afford to live here, then we are poorer for those efforts. The challenges of affordable housing and preserving economic diversity are essential, and rightfully the subject of their own series.
The second sense has to do with the disabled, wheelchair-bound, blind, elderly, and children. For them, Somerville is not very “walkable” and has missed opportunity after opportunity to become more so. That, history and what is being done to change it is the subject of the last piece in this series.