Walkable Somerville

On May 24, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Part 3: Somerville by Design

shelton_webBy 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:

  1. It doesn’t provide clear and unambiguous guidance.
  2. Residential district regulations are not preserving neighborhoods’ unique character.
  3. Current zoning can’t maximize the economic development and smart growth opportunities created by transit stations.
  4. 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.


16 Responses to “Walkable Somerville”

  1. ritepride says:

    A city that is pushing towards 60% tax exempt properties is at a severe disadvantage to the resident taxpayers. The city is under 4 square miles. The houses have little space between them.

    It was cited after the Chelsea (18 city blocks) conflagration, that Somerville could suffer an even bigger loss should they have a fire under similar conditions. There are less firefighters and apparatus in the city today. Police and DPW similar cutbacks.

    They are allowing buildings to be built even closer together today due to the greed of city hall and the developers as there is little land left to build on. The answer is to eliminate future tax-exempt land in the city.

    Congress is looking at eliminating the tax exemption for colleges & universities and it is about time that they do. Colleges have millions-billions in endowments. They operate profit making research facilities and medical facilities. Any homes in your neighborhood they purchase become tax exempt thus robbing the city tax base. Meanwhile they use city services that take away from the taxpayers. Enough is enough.

  2. A. Moore says:

    The problem for input from many of us is not being able to attend meetings. It is probably not possible to schedule meetings that will fit with everyones time. I could never do evenings. Many long time residents cannot go out at night. I don’t know what a good answer is to solve that. Many years ago when I had thoughts of getting into politics here my not being able to get out nights forced me to stay out of it, probably making a lot of people happy. Somerville was a great walkable city years ago. I don’t see any signs of it happening here again. Hope I am wrong. But all those little stores and supermarkets made it so easy to just walk and get everything with very little need of an automobile. Magoun Square as small as it was you could get just about everything and services too, it was incredible back then.

  3. Bostom says:

    Ritepride, you’re good on the first two paragraphs. In paragraph three, you suggest eliminating future tax-exempt land in the city. To the extent that land is owned and used by a charitable corporation, its exemption from taxation is governed by state law. See the Mass General Laws, Part 1, Title IX, Chapter 59, Section 5. In paragraph four you mention colleges and universities. For the most part (the exceptions would be something like tech or trade schools or hospitals operated for a profit) colleges, universities, and most hospitals in Massachusetts are organized as charitable institutions exempt from taxation and hence there’s nothing the city could eliminate.

    As for the endowments for colleges and universities, many of whom operate hospitals, in Greater Boston’s case several world-class institutions including the top-ranked hospital in the country if not the world, the Mass General, they produce far more in follow-on benefits (the salaries they pay, all of which mean more taxes to the state and federal government; the private patients who come here from all over the world and pay privately, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop at Copley Place; the construction workers they employ erecting labs and buildings; the incredible array of small business that depend on the college or hospital’s purchasing their products, etc.) it’s very unlikely Congress will take any step to tax the assets of any college or university not operated for profit on a Federal level because the benefits these endowments provide far outweigh any possible tax revenues they could produce.

    Harvard indeed has a 32 billion dollar endowment, in part because it has grown for four centuries without being taxed. It would not have 32 billion dollars invested and producing income to further its charitable mission if it were subject to Federal taxation.

    I trust if Mitt Romney taught us nothing else apart from how not to conduct a presidential campaign, it’s that the rich have their ways to avoid taxation and I’m confident – in the extraordinarily unlikely event that 100 senators and 435 congresspersons, just about each and every one a college graduate, would vote to tax their alma maters, those institutions would quickly find ways to reclassify that money into something else. It won’t happen, because of the public good the income from endowments provides (free care at hospitals, scholarships at colleges, etc.) far outweighs any taxes raised by removing their exemptions.

  4. ritepride says:

    Yes “Bostom” you are probably correct, the Good Old Boy network will protect their buddies. All these places make profits and to continue to grant exemptions is outright fraud and wrong. Then when you have a U.S. Senator that teaches at Harvard 1 class a week and receives $360K a year it just demonstrates how corrupt the higher education system is.

    No professor deserves the outrageous salaries they are paid today. One student told me their professor only showed one or two classes a week and the rest of the time you had to email them at home if you had any questions. Great work ethic to teach the kids. You can go to a Canadian College graduate four years later and the total cost is what you pay to go to a U.S. college for one year. The Carholic church is in the realty business and owns numerous housing developments.

    It is not the responsibility of tax payers to bear the burden of private colleges, hospitals, etc. by having the majority of the land tax exempt.
    The city should be paid for any municipal services that the tax exempt organizations draw from the city.

    A college and some businesses were demanding extension of a trolley line to their area with added station stops. Colorado made them share the cost or the project would not go foreward. So the “Bacon Hill” gang either lacks good common sense or it is the “Envelope Puhleeez” attitude.

  5. amen says:

    bostom, i love that dems always name Romney as tax-cheating example. Why do we never mention dems? Kennedys: owned 2 oil companies, inc. offshore. Own largest commercial prop in Chic. -HQ in FIJI! Family trusts in tax-free offshore shelters. 62 million Fed $$ to build a memorial library to uncle Ted. Rose’s estate filed in Fla where she hadn’t been in 15 yrs. No death tax!!! same as Romney and every other wealthy person. Kerry’s Heinz Ketchup moved offshore and not a peep. (his income from his 2nd sugarmama) Don’t even start me on George Soros or Michael Moore

  6. MarketMan says:

    bostom makes some good points, but ritepride didn’t seem to get it. Sure there are colleges that are cheaper than going to Harvard (as an example) but there are reasons that people still prefer to go to Harvard. If you want to create an environment where the *world’s* best and brightest want to attend, you sometimes have to pay a premium to create that environment. Maybe some professors are overpaid, but having those professors is going to give the university its competitive edge, then the premium is worth it to the school. The same thing happens in the private industry, but you just don’t hear much about it because private salaries don’t need to be disclosed.

  7. Somerbreeze says:

    To consider Harvard a NONPROFIT is completely laughable…

    Harvard has a portfolio of billions of dollars and has glommed up huge acerages of taxable property in the Boston area…

    Tufts has nowhere near the impact of Harvard, except with its students
    wreaking havoc on the neighborhoods of West Somerville.

    “Think globally, Disrupt locally,” would be an appropriate Tufts motto.

  8. Harry says:

    The Education Industrial Complex (EIC) – ain’t it a beauty! Harvard, Tufts and all these so called “prestigious” colleges that get all these tax breaks – what again do they bring to the local community (the ones giving them the breaks)?

    When you limit or eliminate taxable properties/space – be in residential or commercial – then you create a heavier burden for those in the taxable properties that are left. In Somerville’s case – it’s the homeowners that get hit with the highest properties allowed. It is what it is. This city is not for families and hasn’t been for 15 to 20 years now. And people can babble about “walkable” cities and all that, but the bottom line is we built/invested a bike path that is underused.

    The majority of people in this city are transients now – they may stay a few years, but they weren’t born here and I doubt they’ll die here. They have nothing vested in the community beyond a bar tab or two.

  9. MarketMan says:

    Harry: Got a chip on your shoulder? Harvard is prestigious. There’s no doubt about that. You really don’t know what they bring to the local community??! Wow!

    This city is not for families? Really? I have a family and have lived here for 7 years. Many of my neighbors have families or show signs of starting a family. Every morning I see lots of school children being walked to school with their parents.

    The bike path is underused??! Are you blind? I always see people using it and I have seen the bike rack at the Davis T stop so full that I couldn’t imagine another bike fitting. I even took a picture once because I was so impressed.

    The city is full of transients now? There are a large portion of students and young people that may move away when they decide to make a major change in their life (graduate, job change, etc) that requires a move. But there are many people making roots in Somerville and are highly vested… buying property to live in is a sure sign of being vested in the community. And my understanding is that the number of owner occupied properties has been increasing, not decreasing.

  10. Josh says:

    I think that the city does not encourage families. They encourage apartments being turned into over-priced condos because it creates more tax revenue. They encourage the development of high-end, often smaller-sized units/buildings. They have refused to allow some family-friendly businesses into the city. My personal experience? People on my street come and go pretty frequently. They do not interact within the neighborhood, do not vote in local elections, and if they do begin a family, move out when the child is 5 or 6. I have even seen families do this who seemed to be interested in the community and put down roots.

  11. Steve Keenan says:


    Don’t forget about John Kerry having his multi-million dollar boat moored and registered in Rhode Island in order to avoid paying “his fair share” of Massachusetts taxes.

    He also has the exclusive home in an exclusive part of Beacon Hill, Louisburg Square. Rememeber when he had the fire hydrant removed from in front of HIS house.

    Most of these politicians preach “Do as I say, not as I do.” Now that I’ve written this, I guess I can expect the IRS to investigate me.

  12. Harry says:

    Marketman, 7 years? Yeah… you been here forever. Whatever.

    Trust me – we have few families compared to 20 or 30 years ago.

  13. Steve Keenan says:


    Somerville is, and always will be, a great city with great people. That has been proven time and again.

  14. MarketMan says:

    Harry: I didn’t say that we have more families now than we did 20 or 30 years ago. My point was that there are families that do live here and are moving in, and many are trying to build roots. Just because we all haven’t been here since birth doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to be part of the community.

  15. thinkaboutme says:

    do us all a favor, Mr. Shelton. When you write the installment dealing with disabilities, talk to some real people first. People who are disabled, people who work with disabled, Family members of someone with a disability. I’m tired of people quoting federal stats and general information, with no connection to the real experience. Talk to Real People, and find out what it’s like getting around in this city with a disability. I would love to hear someone address the isolation in this community for people who cannot get around or need some accomodations.

  16. Bill Shelton says:


    I have been doing just as you suggest. And with one exception, no one wants to be quoted for attribution. If you would like to be quoted, please get in touch with me through the Somerville News office.

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