‘Might as well put up a prison’

On July 18, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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.)

This is an election year in Somerville, and elections are about the future. They are about what kind of city we want to live in and whether we need to change the path we are on if we are to arrive there. Candidates and voters are discussing a variety of matters this year. But one issue appears to be overarching:  the pattern of real estate development.

“Overarching” because it influences, constrains, or enables every other issue—housing affordability, economic diversity, living-wage employment, entrepreneurial opportunities, open space and sustainability, neighborhood integrity and stability, our capacity to pay for the city services that we want, and government’s responsiveness to citizens’ legitimate and heartfelt concerns.

The latter was the subject of a discussion at last week’s Board of Aldermen meeting. Concerned about an outsized development proposed in his ward, Alderman Tony Lafuente had submitted this Order: “That the zoning ordinance is hereby amended by changing all CCD45 and CCD55 zoning districts in Ward 4 to RC Zoning Districts.” Aldermen Dennis Sullivan and Bill White cosponsored the order.

CCD districts allow greater development density and were added to the Zoning Ordinance to accomplish worthwhile objectives, including, “To increase commercial development investment in high profile, accessible areas including retail that is largely neighborhood-serving….”

The flashpoint for Alderman Lafuente’s concern is a development proposed to replace a two-story structure on the corner of Broadway and Temple Streets. The housing-above-stores project wouldn’t do much to “increase commercial development” since the current structure’s ground floor is already occupied by retail uses. In fact, razing the existing building to make way for the proposed one would remove the commercial uses that currently occupy the building’s second floor. Instead of expanding commercial space, the project would cram 56 new housing units onto a little over half an acre, blocking light and sightlines of residential neighbors.

As I wrote in my last column, this development pattern is fiscally unsustainable. Over time, residential properties create more municipal costs than property-tax revenues, while commercial properties do the reverse.

The zoning ordinance cautions that “The building should be designed so that its massing is concentrated along the commercial corridor and away from properties and residential zoning districts to the extent possible.” The last four words create ambiguity, which the nonelected members of the Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board can interpret in favor of developers who want to achieve maximum density.

The 315 Broadway project is the latest in a long line of similar developments. One-by-one, residents must defend their neighborhood’s integrity on their own. Zoning and permitting decision makers usually find neighbors’ legitimate concerns to be less legitimate than residential developers’ profit maximization goals.

Occasionally city government will make a pretense of concern regarding neighbors’ understandable fears. But the outcome is already in the bag, as was the case with 343 Summer Street.

Union Square neighbors are asking that the Somerville Community Corporation lower its proposed five-story, 40-unit development on six-tenths of an acre by just one story. Thus far, the developer and the city seem unresponsive.

Alderman Dennis Sullivan commented that the kind of massing proposed for 315 Broadway blocks long-term neighbors’ sunlight and air space.  “We might as well put up a prison.”

Speaking in support of Tony Lafuente’s order, Bill White said that the city’s zoning and permitting is inflating land values. “Then, when folks buy [this high-priced property] to develop it, they have to put in more units. If we say that we want to have five-story buildings everywhere, we want to have dense development, we want to have 600-square-foot units, we might be the “hippest” city in the U.S. We’ll have young affluent people coming in, living here for a few years, and moving out. We then become a very transient community. Our schools suffer and our social organizations suffer.” He wryly commented, “God forbid we should have backyards in the city of Somerville.”

The project under discussion offers a good example. It’s land value is assessed at $648,000; its buildings, at $705,000, for a total of  $1.36 million. But its selling price is listed at $2.7 million.

An exasperated Alderman Lafuente said that, “Inflated prices are driving people out of the city. The only right that a developer has is to submit an application and work with the aldermen and residents to get the development that they are proposing, And if they don’t get it, too bad. There will be another one behind them.”

Alderman Rebeckah Gewirtz made what I consider to be an important point, “Density in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when it comes around transit hubs.”

Exactly. We need more commercial development that will boost net tax revenues and our jobs base, not leviathans that assault residential neighborhoods. The basic principles laid down by the SomerVision plan speak to this. But their interpretation has been dubious.

Consider that the pattern of first-floor retail with three residential floors above proposed for 315 Broadway is the same as what is under construction at Assembly Square, where density should be much greater and dominated by commercial uses. Adding insult to injury, the city’s consideration of a zoning change to enable a one-story 130,000-square-foot supermarket on the old IKEA site makes a mockery of SomerVision.

Alderman Tom Taylor suggested that there is a disconnect between the zoning ordinance’s mission and its implementation. He asked, “Is our mission to protect neighborhoods, or is our mission to maximize development?”

But as Alderman Heuston sagely suggested, merely banishing CCD zoning districts isn’t going to prevent development atrocities. She cited harmful projects in her ward that were built in RB and RC zoning districts.

Alderman Jack Connolly pointed to Davis Square’s Somerset Savings Bank and Harvard Vanguard buildings that are large, but fit neatly into their urban fabric because their developers collaborated closely with neighbors and city officials. And not just on their massing, but on their design and use as well.

The city is now rewriting the existing Zoning Ordinance, which all parties acknowledge gives neither clear guidance to developers, nor protection to neighbors. This rewrite should involve much broader public participation than it currently does.

And as Aldermen Heuston and Connnolly imply, it cannot succeed by merely specifying building heights and floor-area ratios. It must be guided by a vision of what we want our city to be, and the guiding principles that will make it so.

Describing those principles is a worthy subject of another column. But they probably should not include

  • How much developers donate to political campaigns;
  • Who they are related to;
  • Their attorneys’ relations and campaign donations;
  • Maximizing short-term residential-property-tax gain in return for long-term fiscal pain; or
  • Making Somerville’s proportion of open space even smaller than its current 3% (including cemeteries and paved schoolyards), which is the smallest in the Commonwealth.

Monday of last week, Alderman Lafuente’s order was put on the Board agenda. That Thursday, the 315 Broadway project went on the Planning Board’s agenda for tonight’s meeting. Do you suppose that such expeditious scheduling could have anything to do with getting the project approved before Lafuente’s board order can be considered and take effect?


9 Responses to “‘Might as well put up a prison’”

  1. jane says:

    I’m glad to see the Aldermen FINALLY addressing this issue. Having been involved in several neighborhood development plans, I can tell you that I have learned the following:
    ~The zoning guidelines are almost never adhered to, a special permit is requested and approved.
    ~The parking requirements are almost never adhered to (see above).
    ~The Planning Board feels that their job is to ‘make the neighborhood comfortable with the proposal’ (quoted by PB Chair at a public meeting).
    ~When permit is received, building begins, but noone checks that developer is following the conditions of the permit.
    ~The wants of the developer seem to trump the wants of the neighbors almost 100% of the time.

  2. Joe Beckmann says:

    Ward 4 is not Ward 3, and the intensity of one ought not dictate the intensity of the other for many, many reasons – more than the “feelings” of neighbors.

    As Mr. Shelton knows and probably remembers, maintaining the city’s fragile diversity was the primary goal of the Affordable Housing Task Force on which we both sat at the end of Mayor Capuano’s administration: our goal was not to maintain the look of the city, which is, in many areas, ragged and piecemeal, but, rather, to maintain its dynamism.

    The current debates in the Board of Aldermen and Planning Board reveal how few officials take this goal seriously. It is one thing to presume that “gentrification” is inevitable, but markets that gentrify are man-made forces and zoning, permitting, and planning frames those forces. The city can get wealthier – just as all of us can improve our lot – but it need not steal from the poor the way, frankly, they did in Cambridge.

    Wealth need not be the only alternative to poverty. Instead, it can be the measure of how we share, listen, and improve each others’ day. Such a view is uncommon in gentrified cities, but is, frankly, pretty often shared at a Market Basket checkout line, a Council on Aging exercise session, or even in the high school.

    Height restrictions are symptoms, not causes of gentrification. I live next to a twelve story building that has virtually no negative environmental impact, yet I’m sure there were rumblings when it was first approved. Some of those rumblings have delayed and confused the SCC Washington Street development. Yet there at least they also echo those from Florida and sounded – on a wide range of blogs – like Zimmerman’s argument: Stand Your Ground, Not in My Neighborhood!

    That is exactly what drove the Marathon Bombers to hate America: they thought America hated them. And they only lived three blocks from Union Square.

    None of the Planning Board heard that message. A real majority did hear the goals and design specifications of their zoning plan echoed by a developer. A real majority heard two partner developers build a case for density that accommodates both the zoning restrictions and traffic. Yet two Board members heard neither argument. One didn’t like the design, but Mike Capuano, Jr., under whose father both Shelton and I served on housing, heard only the Zimmerman argument – too big, too dense, and too many people for MY town. We’ll see what he says tonight. People CAN learn. But they don’t all learn the same way, nor the same thing.

    I like Somerville as it is, but the only way we’ll keep it that way is to keep adding more and reinforcing the diversity we’ve already got. We’re too close to too much to ignore the Cambridge precedent.

  3. francis says:

    Joe Beckman, are you comparing critics of SCC proposal to two Murderers? You’re insane. Plus, Capuano Jr. voted for the compromised project tonight! Jesus, Dude. Get a clue.

  4. buffoon says:

    OMG, what a load of crap. i’ll admit I tend to dismiss people who say things like, “ought not”. did you really just relate this to the reasons for Marathon bombing? because he thought Am. didn’t like him? why did he think that? free tuition, ebt, food stamps, housing–and he thinks we hate him? what a stupid, shabby thing to say. beneath contempt.
    and your other completely unrelated point about Zimmerman? He never used a stand your ground defense. He pled self defense, and that remained through the trial. The media created the myth that he claimed stand your ground. If you’re going to use random non sequitors, please at least get the facts straight.

  5. Stevie says:

    I’ve got to say, I think this article is way off. The design plans for 315 Broadway are well thought, include the recommendations from city planners and the historic commission, and will bring some vitality to an otherwise underutilized corridor.

    I’m a local homeowner, and to get to my house you’ve got to turn at that corner, onto Temple and then head a few blocks into Winter Hill. I would absolutely love to see 315 Broadway redeveloped; my only hope is that the properties across from it on Temple (where Winter Hill Liquors, Rite-Aid and the vacant Star Market sit) are also redeveloped in a similar fashion. All along Broadway should be redeveloped into higher-density, mixed-use development. Off Broadway, we can keep the neighborhoods primarily residential. This way we’ll create the diversity Somerville prides itself on (note: this plan creates affordable housing units where there currently are none at 315 Broadway); we’ll have family-friendly housing in the neighborhoods, we’ll have the more affordable housing for artists, working-class and lower-income residents along Broadway, and we’ll have some nice new market-rate units that will (yes, gasp!) bring in some more affluent folks to the neighborhood….and that’s a good thing. Higher density means more support for existing businesses, more money going into local entrepreneurs’ pockets, and more demand for new businesses; growing the commercial base has long been a struggle for Somerville.

    I’m thrilled that the Planning Board has given its recommendation to approve this project, and I hope that the Board of Aldermen will step aside and stop trying to micromanage the market. I’m one of Alderman Lafuente’s constituents, and while I might not be as vocal as Somerville’s old timers, I’m here for the long-haul. I’m here to participate in Somerville’s future, to be an active and engaged citizen, and to support what I believe is the right direction for the city.

    If we really care about diversity, if we really care about supporting lower-income residents, if we really care about ensuring families can stay put in their neighborhoods, focusing new development along the city’s largest, most under-utilized corridor is the way we must do that.

  6. jane says:

    I wouldn’t tout the fact that the PB approved the project to mean that it is a good project, or even a legal one. After attending multiple PB meetings it is clear that they do not know, or understand, city and state laws concerning zoning, accessiblity, fire codes, etc., etc., etc.

  7. Guillermo Samuel Hamlin says:

    I’m going to overstep typical hyperbole by plainly commending Mike Capuano, Jr. for his stern but practical zoning decision last night. He has set forward an example that should serve as a precedent for any representative of Somerville. The message that was lost in the groans of disappointment on the opposing side, and cheers on the affirmative…was his exhaustive, thriving compromise. Yet he followed it up with a sharp reminder that developers ought to include local actors in their decision-making process. He presented strength, but through humility gave way towards something he believed was an improvement from before.

    This should be applauded and replicated because this consideration has allowed for otherwise untapped opportunities in affordable housing units. One which has amended the original towards something more suitable for its local residents. This is the collaborative, and distinguishable cooperation needed to make a changing Somerville a worthwhile public enterprise. Regardless of how Capuano voted, I admire his audacity to move this project more toward what’s best for his neighbors and the people of Somerville.

  8. Catherine W says:

    “Guillermo” are you just one of the Capuanos in disguise?

  9. gregtowne says:

    Guillermo your comments are as transparent as saran wrap. what a joke

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