By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
The new term for Somerville’s elected officials begins on Monday. It comes at a time of unprecedented real-estate-development opportunities and risks that will shape the city’s character, economics, and fiscal health for generations to come.
Based on extensive community engagement, city staff produced an exemplary Union Square Revitalization Plan in the Spring of 2012. Now that they are prepared to move ahead on it, new controversies have emerged regarding the selection of a single developer for all twelve acres, Union Square’s mix of uses, building heights, the relocation of city hall, and financial risks.
Then, early this month Partners Health Care announced that it would consolidate administrative operations in a new 650,000-to-700,000-square-foot Assembly Square development, to be built on an ambitious schedule. This is fantastic news.
Yes, Partners is a nonprofit organization. But the payments in lieu of taxes that it will generate, the number and range of jobs that it will bring, and the traffic and pollution impacts that it will make are vastly better for all interested parties than are those of the one-story supermarket that was earlier proposed for the site. Or, for that matter, an IKEA. And the development unequivocally establishes Assembly Square as an office destination.
Somervision, the much-praised Comprehensive Plan for the entire city, poses the third development challenge. Its implementation will require rewriting of the zoning code and neighborhood-by-neighborhood designs and objectives for its quantitative goals.
The most immediate development challenge, however, isn’t in Somerville. It’s a hundred yards away, directly across the Mystic River from the Assembly Square Orange Line station site.
Wynn Resorts wants to build a 2.5-million-square-foot casino, hotel, and parking structure there. Everett needs and deserves economic development, and its leaders see the Wynn proposal as an answered prayer. They would receive an initial payment of $30 million, and $25 million in annual property taxes, single-handedly increasing their city’s tax levy by 30%.
But while Everett would receive 100% of the benefits, Medford, Somerville, and Charlestown would bear most of the burdens. Setting aside the morality of this kind of gambling and the wisdom of entitling a giant funnel to extract money from Massachusetts residents and suck it outside the Commonwealth, this is still bad news for Somerville.
The building would rise to almost 400 feet, towering over Assembly Square, with its reflective surface and nighttime illumination beckoning all I-93 travelers. Wynn’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) projects that it would generate 22,000 to 25,000 new vehicle trips per day. Between 80% and 90% of them would be on Routes 28 (McGrath Highway) and 99 (Washington Street).
Wellington Circle is already a choke point for four hours per day. Casino congestion would greatly increase traffic backups along Route 16 in both directions, and on all surrounding arterials.
The development would inevitably diminish Assembly Square’s prospects, devalue its property, and degrade its taxes and jobs potential.
Massachusetts General Law Chapter 91 is “the Commonwealth’s primary tool for protection and promotion of public use of its tidelands and other waterways.” The Wynn proposal violates Chapter 91 on a slew of grounds. So Wynn and Everett intend to end run around Chapter 91 by substituting a Municipal Harbor Plan (MHP).
Such a plan escapes many of the dimensional requirements of Chapter 91, but it requires uses that are “water dependent,” for example fishing docks, boat building facilities, marinas, and so forth. It’s hard to imagine why a casino would require a waterfront to exist. The proponents might say that they need water access to bring gamblers, but this is a feeble claim. Their DEIR projects that only 3% of trips would be by water, and the competing Casino proposed in Revere has no such requirement.
Neither the DEIR nor the MHP propose mitigations for the casino’s impacts on Medford, Somerville, and Boston, which will all be greater than those on Everett. Nor do they propose substitutions that are anywhere equal to the dimensional requirements that they would avoid with a Municipal Harbor Plan. These “substitutions” are amenities that, in return for suspension of Chapter 91 requirements, the developer must provide to benefit the entire general public of the Commonwealth, not just gamblers, hotel guests, and Everett residents.
Among the affected communities, Mayor Curtatone has been the most outspoken leader in opposition to the Everett casino. In response, Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria Jr. has whined that Curtatone is hypocritical and is trying to “derail” a project that could “revolutionize” Everett. But DeMaria offered no concessions regarding mitigation of impacts. In fact, he defiantly stated, “Let me be clear: Everett is the sole host community for this development.”
Last Friday the Massachusetts Gaming Commission declared that Wynn Resorts is “suitable” to hold a gambling license. This just means they judge that Wynn has sufficient financial strength and lacks identifiable criminal associations and shady practices. Now Wynn must beat out Mohegan Sun’s proposal for a Revere casino, and win state approval for the Municipal Harbor Plan.
To protect Assembly Square’s potential and Somerville’s best interests, our city’s leaders must be vigilant, effectively seeking to block the casino’s construction or mitigate is impacts at every opportunity.
Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is accepting comments on the DEIR until January 17. It can be obtained at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/b3o665pm3igxu93/ticaiULB4t