By Douglas Yu
In a civically engaged city like Somerville, people have an opportunity to point out which parts of the city should be redesigned. They are also free to join discussions with their neighbors to come up with ideas for better urban development.
Hosted by Somerville by Design and the Mayor’s Strategic Planning and Community Development staff, Somerville residents grouped up at tables, marking on the visual photos and maps to sort out preferable design ideas for East Somerville.
“So many changes are brought to the neighborhood,” said Director of Planning George J. Proakis. “The green line is going to be redesigned, the streetscape is coming on Broadway, and Washington Street needs an update too. So essentially, East Somerville needs a plan.”
The plan includes the combination of choosing the sites that could not be developed and managing the neighborhood’s operation on daily basis, according to Proakis.
Following several crowd-source meetings in May and June, Somerville by Design adopted a new way to approach city planning. It includes reaching out to residents to hear their opinions, having conversations with people, deciding which ideas are preferable for the neighborhood and implementing final ideas.
“We have a lot of plans to make our streets more walkable and bikable,” said Mike Lydon, Principal of Street Plans Collaborative. “Since 2005, people drive less and less, so they want to design the city in a walkable context.”
Even though Somerville has a mixture of architectural styles, East Somerville has its own characters, Proakis pointed out.
“There are mostly families who live here for their entire life. There are newcomers from other parts of the U.S. and other countries,” said Proakis. “So the Mayor’s Office had this discussion before that we should handle everything contextually.”
Somerville by Design has made progress in putting residents’ advice into action.
“There’s a lot of investment going into Broadway. There is less investment into Washington Street and the connection between the two,” Proakis said. “So by doing the mapping exercise, people have a better idea of where they are at and how streets connect the neighborhood.”
So far, Somerville by Design has processed the visual preference photos from the last mapping exercise meeting. Interestingly, the strongest support goes to the combination of mid-sized neighborhood houses, commercial buildings on the commercial streets and storefronts in the walkable distance, according to Proakis.
Given the fact that Somerville is one of the most populated neighborhoods in the country, strategic planning becomes necessary.
“Somerville is different from a lot of places where I work,” Lydon said. “It’s an old city. It has many amenities. Some of the transits are improving for the future. Streets are very active because of density.”
Lydon also addressed East Somerville residents’ issue with the inconvenience of getting around in the neighborhood because of many one-way streets and poor accessibility to public transportation.
“I don’t think there is anything that needs to urgently improve at this time,” Lydon said. “But finding opportunities along Washington Street and getting easier access to public transportations are welcomed by people, because access is the main challenge for whoever works here, lives here or just visits here.”
During the group presentation, Executive Director of East Somerville Main Streets, Carrie Dancy spoke up of her favorite visual photos, a redbrick Harvard-style building with an arch and a giant multi-functional condo.
“I really like the building with a curve.” Dancy said. “It makes it easy for people to walk around here. My favorite is this giant building, because it’s made of diverse materials and it maintains a lot of characters that classic buildings have.”
Dancy also pointed out that the fences on Broadway need to be pulled down in order to leave more green space. “We don’t just need high rise buildings, but we need appeasing, safe places for kids to hang out as well.”
In the late October, Somerville by Design will process all the drawings and feedback from residents and decide what areas in the city need more attention, according to Proakis.
“People are demanding different kinds of housing. We also want more business to move in the neighborhood and create more jobs,” Proakis said. “I definitely hope the mapping exercise can get people involved, and eventually we come up with some practical ideas.