(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.)
The recent editorial written by Danny LeBlanc regarding the Somerville Community Corporation’s proposed development at 181 Washington Street describes the project as embodying a shared community vision. Developed alongside Cathartes Private Investments who are proposing a building to replace the adjacent historic Cota Funeral Home at 197 Washington Street, they promise a “thriving neighborhood at the gateway of Union Square” that is a “mixed-income, mixed-use site with community amenities such as public green space and ground floor retail.”
Many neighbors living around the project site share this vision and the goal outlined in ‘Somervision’, Somerville’s comprehensive plan created by a broad coalition of residents: to “…facilitate thoughtfully-designed, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development and reuse opportunities … that are sensitive to neighborhood context, and serve existing and future residents and businesses.” Despite this clear vision for the site, the actual buildings that are being proposed fall short of these goals, creating buildings which negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood and fail to create the type of high quality housing intended by the Union Square Zoning Ordinance and the Somervision Plan.
While often described as a joint development, the reality is that two separate buildings are proposed – one containing exclusively subsidized rental housing and the other containing market rate rental housing. The only “mixed-income” component of the project is a shared parking lot which occupies the remainder of the site – there is nothing which encourages any interaction between those living on their respective side.
In a city where the preservation and creation of green space are consistently identified as a core community value, this project proposes to replace the grand front lawn of the historic Cota funeral home with a building and parking lot that have no “public green space” outside of plantings in the entrance plazas and the required buffer between adjacent buildings. The only usable outdoor space for residents is a small sunken area at the SCC building entrance. Providing attractive usable common space could help integrate the two sides and also help integrate these buildings into the surrounding community. Unfortunately there is no room to create this type of community amenity as long as the developers continue to insist on building the number of housing units currently proposed.
Pedestrian oriented retail space has been described as the primary public benefit this project will provide, yet few would describe the proposed 7’ wide sidewalks between a five story building and a busy road as pedestrian friendly. Either the buildings need to set back or the developers need to collaborate with the City to narrow Washington Street as part of this project to create a walkable, comfortable street for all users.
Neighboring residents care deeply about the quality of these buildings and have tried to provide input on how the buildings can best fit into the neighborhood context. Many attended a 4 hour “design workshop” hosted by the developers on a Saturday in February, but the SCC discouraged any discussion of the actual buildings being proposed. A later presentation of the current design raised concerns that the proposed five story buildings were out of scale with surrounding buildings, impacting views and the character of the neighborhood, and preventing the creation of any type of community space on the site. Many were also concerned about increasing traffic through the quiet residential streets of Prospect Hill by requiring those living in the SCC building to travel up and around Union Square and the hill to access a poorly considered parking entrance on one-way Boston Street.
While the SCC considers these negative impacts justified by the “community good” their development will provide, many actual members of the community being affected disagree. Creating a project that embodies a shared vision means listening to the concerns of community members and integrating them in a building design that serves both existing and future residents.
On Thursday June 20th the Somerville Planning Board will consider whether the buildings that have been proposed not only meet the minimums and maximums allowed by zoning but satisfy the vision and ideals embodied in Somervision and the Union Square Zoning Ordinance. Considering its many shortcomings, the Planning Board should reject this project as proposed and request revisions that address the many concerns that have been raised. Those who support the idea of this project should look closely at the plans being proposed and advocate for a project that addresses community concerns and provides the best possible home for the new residents who will live there.
Creating four story buildings instead of five story buildings could address many of the concerns with the project by reducing the building height and mass. Reduced density also means fewer cars to park, freeing up space to provide the amenities that have been promised and the type of public spaces that are desired.
The arrival of the green line does not mean that the improvement of this area is inevitable – there are many neighborhoods around T stops that few feel comfortable in. Articulating ideas for this place is not enough – the ideas need to be backed by a building proposal that actually embodies the community’s vision and reflects the interesting and unique character we all love about Union Square. A smaller project would be a better project, maintaining the neighborhood character which is the reason many have chosen to live here. This will also allow the flexibility to create spaces that make these new homes a part of Mayor Curtatone’s vision to create a city that is an exceptional place to live, work, play and raise a family. Somerville has come too far to accept developments that don’t meet the aspirations of our Somervision plan. New development should create places that will be treasured by generations to come. For the future of this corner of Somerville, hopefully we can do better.
Tim & Shu Talun