‘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?


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