Planning Board pushes back on Union Square project

On July 17, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Members ask for compromise; vote expected Thursday


Opponents of a planned development on Washington Street rallied outside last week’s Planning Board meeting.
– Photo by Elizabeth Sheeran

By Elizabeth Sheeran

Developers of a Union Square housing and retail project have until tomorrow to convince Somerville Planning Board members they have a plan the neighborhood can live with.

Over a hundred residents filled the Planning Board meeting at the Argenziano school last Thursday to hear the fate of a controversial two-building, five-story project that will put 39 market-rate and 45 affordable housing units on Washington Street just west of McGrath Highway, under a joint proposal from the local non-profit Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) and developer Cathartes Private Investments.

But the board declined to make any kind of decision on the case at last week’s meeting, and Planning Board Chair Kevin Prior criticized an SCC press release that had announced the board would vote that night. “The chairman of the Planning Board sets the date the vote will be taken,” said Prior. “The SCC does not set the dates the Planning Board will vote.”

In fact, the delay turned out to be good news for the SCC and its supporters, since it soon became clear the proposal lacked the four votes it would need to pass.

The project has generated strong opinions on both sides since the SCC first announced in 2012 that it planned to construct a five-story building on the site of the former Boys and Girls Club at 181 Washington Street, with retail and commercial space at street level, and a mix of low-income and workforce housing above. Earlier this year, the SCC joined forces with Cathartes, which is redeveloping the Cota funeral home site next door at 197 Washington Street.

Proponents say the proposal is the best possible option for the location and locks in affordable housing for the neighborhood ahead of the Green Line reaching Union Square. They note that the project is well within the site’s CCD-55 zoning designation, which is intended to encourage denser development, up to five stories, along central arteries near transit hubs. The city planning department has recommended approval with some conditions, such as no satellite dishes on the rooftops.

Opponents say the size and height of the project is out-of-scale for that particular site, at the base of the slope of the established Prospect Hill residential neighborhood. They say the proposal lacks enough green space for the number of new residents who will live there, and will aggravate existing parking and traffic problems. And many opponents, including immediate abutters, have said the developers have shown an unwillingness to compromise on any significant aspects of the project design.

The case was closed to public comment in advance of last Thursday’s meeting, but dozens of residents spoke at an earlier public hearing on June 20, and Planning Board members said they had read close to 100 pieces of written testimony.

Board member Michael Capuano said he supports development that creates more affordable housing. But he had visited the site and wouldn’t vote for the current plan because of the impact its size will have on abutters, even though it meets zoning guidelines, “Our job is to assess the project and how it sits on that location and impacts that neighborhood,” said Capuano. “Nothing ever says you have to look at it in a bubble.”

He said it appeared most neighbors who oppose the project would be “reasonably satisfied” if the height of the buildings were reduced to four stories, which would also reduce the traffic and parking impact, and he asked the developers if that was possible.

Cathartes co-founder Jim Goldenberg said the project would not be financially viable at four stories, because knocking off a floor cuts out one quarter of the revenues from the residential units without cutting out a quarter of the costs, and lowers the return on investment to a point where the building can’t get financing.

Said Capuano, “I want to support this project. But it’s very, very hard for me to get to ‘yes’ unless you make some dramatic changes to what is I think a flawed project.”

Board member James Kirylo said he wouldn’t vote for the plan because “it would do nothing for this neighborhood.” He echoed comments by Capuano about the project’s size, lack of green space and traffic impact. “We’re never going to be able to get a car through Union Square at rush hour,” said Kirylo, who also said the two sunken patios meant to serve as open space for the development would likely become “nothing more than outdoor smoking pits.”

Member Gerard Amaral also voiced concern about insufficient green space and parking, as well as the building’s height.

Elizabeth Moroney was among three planning board members who said they would vote in favor of the proposal, citing her “commitment to affordable housing in this city.” Moroney recalled that when the Zoning Board of Appeals declined an affordable housing project on Highland Avenue in 2010, the site was ultimately converted to market rate condominiums. She said insufficient affordable housing options could leave Somerville open to the state’s mandating low-income housing under its Chapter 40b statute, without the same kind of local review.

But Moroney said she would like to see more done by the developers to make the project “more palatable to the direct abutters.”

Board member Joseph Favaloro also said he was “not thrilled” about how the buildings would impact abutters, and asked the developers to do “a little more rolling up of the sleeves” and “be a bit more creative” to find solutions that would respond to some of the legitimate concerns voiced by neighbors.

Still, Favaloro said he would vote for the project because the developers had built a proposal in line with all of the guidelines spelled out for Somerville’s plan for long-term development, which concentrates the taller, denser buildings along the main streets in neighborhoods like Union Square. “It meets the criteria set forward by all the different visioning entities in this city,” said Favoloro.

Planning Board Chair Kevin Prior said he was also in favor of the project, but said the developer had to do more to get the support it needed to get the project approved. He said the board would vote on the project on Thursday, July 18, giving the developers one more week to make any changes in the proposal that might make it more acceptable to neighbors and Planning Board members who currently oppose the plan.

“Let me remind you tonight, you do not have four votes. It’s your job to come up with the votes,” said Prior to SCC and Cathartes representatives at the meeting. “I’m in favor of getting four votes. But that’s not going to happen unless the development team gets off the dime and starts compromising on this project.”



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