By 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.