Building development, building community

On August 29, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(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)

Change is inevitable. It’s also necessary. Faced with the greatest demographic shift since the 1950s, when people fled cities for the suburbs, Somerville is in a unique position to benefit from today’s demand for walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods. At the same time, we want to preserve what we already love about Somerville—the diversity, character and culture that sets our city apart. That juxtaposition between transformation and preservation lies at the heart of every debate about new development in the city, but in fact they are not in conflict at all. Because planning for the evolution of our city and preserving what we love now about it are both, at the most fundamental level, about where and how people want to live, and they both share the same core value: building community.

Community building that balances transformation and preservation hinges upon careful, prudent planning. That starts with our comprehensive 20-year SomerVision plan that sets a goal of creating 6,000 new housing units by 2030, of which 1,200 would be permanently affordable. We did not pick that number out of the air. A study by Reconnecting America, a transportation and community development nonprofit, revealed a gap of 300,000 housing units between the demand for homes near transit over the next 20 years and the supply in the Greater Boston area. Obviously Somerville cannot meet the future demand for transit-accessible homes on its own, nor could simply building 1,000 units near every single MBTA subway station. But we can benefit by addressing a share of that demand, through thoughtful planning and by playing to our strengths.

But while change is inevitable, some change you have to fight for, as we did for decades to demand the extension of the MBTA Green Line. We’re still fighting—to keep it on schedule and funded, bringing this strength to our community. But we are also planning. We are investing in projects such as the Union Square revitalization plan. We’re examining zoning around key areas. And we’re holding Somerville by Design workshops, so that residents can help create plans to guide how our neighborhoods near T stops should grow or be preserved. We need to seize this opportunity because thoughtful development around these transit-oriented centers can create affordable housing and jobs. It can make room for businesses and offices that bring in an active daytime population that in turn support local businesses. Ultimately, the goal is a resilient, self-sufficient economic base for Somerville.

Again, simply building 1,000 units near each Green Line Extension station would not demonstrate prudent planning that balances transformation and preservation. So we look to areas where we can unlock new potential, like Assembly Square, Brickbottom, Inner Belt and Boynton Yards, for most of this new housing creation within mixed use developments. Elsewhere, in an already built-out city, we look where we can build density in a quality, collaborative urban way. This is one of our strengths, especially when it comes to addressing environmental concerns. In seeking dense, active mixed-use developments, we can reduce driving by meeting residents’ everyday needs within their neighborhood.

Yet it’s density that often stokes the most impassioned debates over development. Some residents ask: Who would want to live in such a building? That has already been answered by the market demand for housing in transit-oriented, mixed use neighborhoods. Today’s Somerville two-bedroom condo owners are tomorrow’s two-family house owners, who will settle in the community and raise a family here. Neighborhoods should be a variety of housing types for a variety of people, as long as the city is managing growth by building to demand and to our strengths.

Neighbors of new high-density developments may raise concerns over the effect on their property values, traffic or their impact on open space. But this is again where smart planning can bring rewards rather than losses. Planning for affordable units and a range of housing types helps keep housing accessible to a broader range of renters and buyers. Building near transit and developing our pedestrian and bike infrastructure can eliminate traffic impacts—and over time shift more commuters from the roads onto our sidewalks, subways and bike routes. And the city’s commitment to increase open space in the city by 125 acres will balance out the strategic location of new structures and lead to the incorporation of green space requirements in new projects such as we’ve seen at Assembly Row, which includes a 6-acre park, or the Powder House School redevelopment, which will increase and improve existing open space.

At the same time, many perceived losses are offset by the vibrancy that comes from having walkable retail, restaurants, cafes and services for daily needs flourishing as they only do in dense, mixed use environments. We do not want neighborhoods that are like western ghost towns, with wide streets largely empty of anything but cars and empty businesses. We want urban rooms—active streetscapes supported by an active, diverse daytime population that, again, support a resilient, self-sufficient economic base for our city.

It goes back to playing to our strengths and the question of where and how people want to live. Are we an active, vibrant city, or are we a bedroom community, and what benefits us for the long-term? Our location and our strengths make Somerville attractive to developers so we need to manage this change together. Each proposed project will be weighed upon its merits, with constructive debate leading to better developments. Our job is to do the hard work, the planning, the visioning, and to make sure that change—the change that will come one way or the other—is the change that builds community.


10 Responses to “Building development, building community”

  1. Mrs Toni LaVita says:

    Again after reading this article about Mayor Curtatone project to have Building Development and Building community at the exact same time show me that Mayor Curtatone is very Progressive and to me that is very,very good.Somerville have a good Mayor,who is looking out for the people,and the city.Residents help him all you can.GOD Bless.Mrs LaVita

  2. Sam M says:

    It’s interesting that every paragraph in this article attends to concerns that Somerville residents have (and have increasingly expressed) about the seemingly unilateral zoning changes and real negative impacts on residents and their properties. Generally, most people are in favor of “progress”. Most people are happy to see metal scrap yards and auto body shops give way to train stations and coffee shops. Most people are happy to see bike lanes and clean streets. But the progressive thinking and urban planning that is discussed is lacking and missing the mark. Statements about transit oriented developments “eliminating” traffic or suggesting that building highly restricted low-income housing blocks will somehow increase access to a broad range of “buyers” are dubious and inaccurate. Recent proposals that attempt to take advantage of “developer friendly zoning” have been uniformly opposed by residents and many are being legally challenged. This is not a “healthy debate” and residents are increasingly becoming aware of the disconnect and often adversarial stance of the rhetoric and actions of the city administration.

  3. ritepride says:

    “Sam” is correct. The city will bend over backwards for developers and Tufts but put the screws to the residents. One writer in earlier articles pointed out that there was suppose to be the sidewalk, then lawn area and then the wall of the building facing Clyde St., yet when done the wall abuts right at the sidewalk line.

    When Tufts was going to build dormitories along the boulevard in the 80s’, the neighborhood marched on city hall objecting the fact that it would devalue the tax paying residential homes (part of Tufts massive expansion plan). The citizens committee stopped it and set up a buffer zone along the edge of the campus restricting buildings and heights. Why should the city have even thought of screwing the residents who pay taxes and voting in favor of tax exempt Tufts?

    The GLX, which is a farce as “it will stop pollution” is a bold faced lie. The plan will add 5 additional diesel bus routes via Cedar St., Lowell St., etc., to interact between the GLX on Somerville Ave and the GLX going through Winter Hill/Ball Sq. Having buses on these narrow streets will slow traffic thus creating more pollution. Whoever dreams this stuff up must have a matchbook cover diploma.

  4. sue says:

    That’s the first I’ve heard that there will be buses on Cedar and Lowell. These streets are barely wide enough for cars. Will they eliminate parking to accomodate????

  5. ritepride says:

    The buse routes were shown on the GLX design maps. Somerville cannot afford to eliminate any parking spaces, though the winter with snowbanks. etc. could create problems with the streets being more narrow. Then again each city that has MBTA service is hit with a user fee so it only be fair that the MBTA snow plow fleet be responsible for clearing the narrow streets to accomodate the “T” buses.

  6. J says:

    I guess I don’t get it. Why do we need buses to connect Somerville Ave. to Ball Square, when we don’t need them now?

  7. MarketMan says:

    J: Who says we don’t need them now? How do you get from Ball Square to Somerville Ave now without a car? It’s 1+ miles.

  8. Ron Newman says:

    would very much like to see more north-south bus connectivity in Somerville.

  9. annie says:

    I think the point being made was if we get by without them now, why do we suddenly need them to accomodate the T? I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice to be able to travel across town in that way, but what would be the way to do it? As stated, those streets are simply too narrow to accomodate buses. Throw in snowbanks and you’re looking at a nightmare. I think Capuano looked into the possibility of such a system when he was Mayor. It was obviously not feasible.

  10. ritepride says:

    Evidently Market & Ron support DBEP (diesel bus exhaust pollution), which means the NWC cannot depend on their signatures to close Medford/Washington Sts to protect the mass exodus of the yellow spotted red Jumbo Mongolian Cockaroaches when they flee the demolition of their homesite, the old Somerville Incinerator, now called the Waste Station to be more poltically (un)correct. lol….you know some airhead is going to ? this…Duh!

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