Scaled-down Union Square housing proposal nears approval

On February 26, 2014, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

planning_webBy David R. Smith

The Planning Board is poised to approve a scaled-down project in Union Square after abutters appealed the original proposal’s approval this past July.

The two properties being developed jointly between the Somerville Community Corporation (SSC) and a private developer are at 181 and 197 Washington St. Both buildings currently at each site will be demolished to make room for a mix of commercial/retail space along with market-rate and affordable residential units.

Representing the applicant (CPI-SSC, LLC), attorney Adam Dash presented the revised plans at the board’s Feb. 20 meeting.

“We’ve made a lot of progress with the neighbors,” he said, noting they had a neighborhood meeting with abutters and Ward 3 Aldermen Bob McWatters prior to coming back before the board last week.

The revised plans are part of the land court settlement agreement that, according to both sides, is all but finalized.

The original proposal was for a combined 84 housing units and retail/commercial space in two five-story buildings. The proposal approved this past summer was for 74 units. The current plans have reduced that number to 65 units in two four-story building. Because there are fewer units, there is also less parking, eliminating the need for a parking deck included in the original plans. Parking is now in the rear of the buildings and accessed exclusively off of Washington Street.

The 181 Washington St. property, which will be where SCC builds its 35 one- to three-bedroom affordable housing units, was last used as the Somerville Boys and Girls Club, which closed in 2010. Prior to that, it was the Charles G. Pope School and had also served as the home of the school department. The 197 Washington St. property, where what is being called the “CPI building” will be built, is currently home to the Cota-Struzziero Funeral Home.

The reduction in the overall scale of each building did more than just reduce the total number of units. The first floor of the SCC building, which the organization planned to use as its own office space, will now be used for three of the 35 apartments. Dash said the SCC needed to maintain the original number of units to secure grant funding for the project.

The 30 one- and two-bedroom units in the CPI building, four of which will be earmarked as affordable under the city’s inclusionary zoning bylaw, will be sold as condos and not managed as rental apartments as first proposed, a move, Dash said, necessary to make the scaled-down project economically feasible.

The materials and aesthetics of the buildings will be maintained in the new design.

More than one person in attendance, although supportive of the project, said it was unfortunate the changes only came about through legal action.

“I find it hard to believe – in fact, I don’t believe – you didn’t come to us with this project six months ago,” Planning Board member Michael Capuano told Dash.

“We’re not in love with this,” Dash responded. “It’s a different economic model. It’s not what they wanted to do.”

“It’s really tragic that it’s taken this process to get to this point,” Boston Street resident Timothy Talun said.

Another resident echoed that remark.

“I don’t want my neighbors to feel they have to bring a lawsuit to things done,” he said.

And it wasn’t just the abutters who felt that way.

“We need to find a way to get it done before it gets to this,” Planning Board member Joe Favaloro said.

Despite the feelings about how the revisions came about, abutters stressed they were happy with the end results.

“This has been responsibly developed,” Cherry Street resident Frank Berman said. “This has been a responsible response to the concerns, and the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.”

Stone Street resident Stuart Dash added that what abutters to this project achieved should serve as an inspiration to others.

“I’m very happy to see these changes,” he said. “I look forward to the scale of this project setting a precedent.”

As of last week’s meeting, the settlement agreement had not been finalized, leading the board to ask Dash if the project could be held off until its next meeting. While he said it could, he also expressed concern should the meeting be cancelled and rescheduled, as many city meetings have been postponed this winter due to the weather.

“It’s not a death knell,” he said, “as long as (the meeting) happens.”

Not wanting to vote before the settlement was finalized, the board voted to continue the hearing to March 6.

“We’ve come this far,” Planning Board member Elizabeth Moroney said. “Let’s not end on a bad note.”


24 Responses to “Scaled-down Union Square housing proposal nears approval”

  1. Sam says:

    Too often development proposals require legal action in order for the residents to be heard. Too often development proposals are filled with ‘special permits’ allowing them to build beyond the scope of the zoning laws. There is an obvious pattern here. When was the last time special permits were denied for a large development project? When was the last time a special permit was denied for a homeowner? Homeowners are often told that their home is already nonconforming with current zoning laws but it is allowed as they are grandfathered. As if the current owner is responsible for 100 years of zoning and code changes.

  2. MarketMan says:

    looks like another gigantic blah development for the city. what a shame.

  3. Jim says:

    Bravo for the neighbors for standing up for themselves and putting in the effort to keep their neighborhood character intact. The SCC called them racists, brought protesters to planning board meetings, and waged a campaign of intimidation, but the citizens of the neighborhood finally got a manageable development……..and the developers will still make money and SCC will get their gov’t grant.

  4. sharon says:

    I thought that the Cota building was being preserved as it is considered an historical building? Has that changed?

  5. what ever the develpers want says:

    Developers get whatever they want. How do I know that? How often does the city get sued from developers? Not often, in fact I can’t remember the last time the city was sued from a developer. Why should they sue? Being sued is a good thing from time to time, it lets developers know they can’t come into a city and tell people this is what we want and you’ll give it us anyway.They get whatever they want anyway.

    To make things worse now that have allowed all these units in all these places they have set a precedent and will have no grounds for denial.

  6. ritepride says:

    No! The question should be when HAS THE CITY sued developers. They havent as they have been too busy giving “prizes” to the developers like “FRIT” whom the mayor gave a gift $25 million bond to help defray FRIT’s construction costs.

    Then SCC, the mayor is “loaning” them $250,000 taxpayer dollars for their project while he RAISED” residents taxes. Then he’s going to “give away” the Powder House Community School to Tax Exempt Tufts instead of selling the property at market rate to someone who WILL BE paying taxes on the property. The Maxwell Green developer after getting their gifts, the property is not even a year old and the developer is SELLING it. As usual in Somerville the developers come, get taken care of and then screw leaving their problems with the city and its residents.

    All of these developments look similar, like projects that you see in China.
    Hey look, when China calls in all its loan markers the U.S. owes them.
    [A] All our Progrssive Democrats, a.k.a.. New Wave Commies. Will be dancing in the streets in their Mau Suits/Caps, Till the soldiers cart them off to a mine project.
    [B] We will be all set for the All China West City Award.

  7. ritepride says:

    Ah.h.h.! Would you really want to preserve the “Cota” building which was a funeral home? Would you want to live in a funeral home? After all your eventually going to get there though you really do not want to ever get there. With all the different diseases people die from you do not know what is hidden in all the nooks n crannys within the building

    Say you buy it, your asleep in bed with your wife/girlfriend/significant other or a trifecta – all three (you lucky dog you). Suddenly you awake to a noise, your Trifecta Gang has left in a cloud of dust, as their eyeballs have reached the police station across the street before their bodies have. Your now home alone…maybe. Get my drift?

  8. wth says:

    Generations of funeral home owners have lived on the property, many still do to this day. O’Brien’s and Brown-Flaherty to name 2. The Cota building is historically significant, and I believe that an earlier story about Union Square said that it would be preserved. Where is the Somerville Historical Commission while this is going on?

  9. philb says:

    There should be no ground floor residential units in that area. We need more businesses especially on the ground floor to keep the area lively.

  10. JMB says:

    This is frustrating, but I’m glad Capuano and Favoloro called out the developer for basically lying to the city and to the neighbors when they proposed their 5 story building before. Can you really expect anyone to assess a development when the developer blatantly lies about the changes they can make to a project?

    The developer LIED by saying they absolutely couldn’t build a 4 story building, and they came back with the “best compromise they could make.” The compromised project was approved. The neighbors sued, and it turns out miraculously – they COULD build a 4 story building! As someone who routinely goes to Planning and Zoning meetings, I was happy that Capuano and Favoloro called the developer out on their misleading tactics.

    And “what ever developers want,” the city got sued by Job Lots and won when the city wouldn’t let them use the Winter Hill Star.

  11. joshua says:

    I agree that it was great that Capuano and Favoloro called out the developers. But didn’t they then vote to okay the project?

  12. MDNIONAKIS says:

    And now the CITY gives Mr. LeBlanc another 500k to play MONOPOLY to convert the old post on Glen street. GREED GREED GREED. Playing games with taxpayer funds all in the name of FAIR HOUSING. how much $$$$ is LEBLANC making .SALARY/KICKBACKS
    Last year my taxes went up over 2000.00. When is enough, enough .

  13. Somerbreeze says:

    Very recently a couple of billionaire developers of upscale housing purchased big lots in Union Square…

    I wonder what the reaction to Union Square residents and small business owners will be to THOSE, and how those kinds of developments will affect property values in Union Square.

  14. Anon says:

    It’s obvious the new zoning the City pushed through does not have the support of the community. Neighbors shouldn’t have to sue to get a 4 story building instead of 5. I believe it was only Kirylo on the Planning Board who voted against earlier SCC proposal.

    A note to developers: neighbors in Union Square will fight you on every one of these projects. You may have the mayor and Planning Board in your pocket, but you need the community’s support.

  15. JMB says:

    Joshua – as I remember how it happened, Capuano and Kirylo were originally opposed to the larger project, Capuano didn’t support it until the developer promised (lied) that they reduced it as much as possible, then voted for the compromised project.

    Somerville Times articles here and here

    My guess is Capuano would not have voted for it last time if he knew SCC was lying.

    Also Anon, I’m pretty sure Capuano and Kirylo voted to lower the Union Square building heights but I can’t find that article.

  16. MarketMan says:

    JMB: I agree with joshua. Capuano and Favoloro called out the developers to “show” they were “supporting” the residents. But their votes show everything.

  17. MarketMan says:

    JMB: You point out the problem right there. According to what you wrote, Capuano voted for the compromised project because he believed they were telling the truth. If he knew they were lying, he would have voted against it. That’s not how his job should work. He should vote in favor of what the residents want. And if the developers cannot achieve that, then they should not be able to proceed. Otherwise, any developer can say what they want and say that’s the best they can do. And that’s exactly the problem. Developers do what they want. The city should have the expertise to pick apart the arguments of the developers and know how to achieve what is best for the city and what the residents want. If they can’t do that, then what are we paying the city officials to do??

  18. wth says:

    Maybe it would be helpful if the members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, instead of being political appointments were maybe architects, or builders, or contractors. My experience has shown me that in general these boards are unaware of many state laws and codes they are required to follow.

  19. neighbor says:

    It’s a shame that the original proposal, which received a favorable vote, couldn’t go forward because of SOME neighbors. I preferred the original proposal, which would have added more new, decent, affordable housing to our neighborhood.

    Imagine if SCC and Cathartes came in with this proposal originally – they would have ended up with five units total.

    Disappointing and a missed opportunity.

  20. Anon says:

    @Neighbor: I guess one could look at this as whether the glass if half-empty or half-full. The original plans called for 45 affordable apartments (40 SCC/5 CPI) out of a total of 84 units (so 54% affordable). The revised proposal includes 39 affordable units (35 SCC apartments and 4 CPI condos) out of a total of 65 units (60% affordable). So, yes, there are 6 less affordable units overall from the original plan; however, 39 units of affordable housing in the revised proposal is not insignificant and could hardly be characterized as a missed opportunity. The compromise plan has a higher percentage of affordable units in the development than the original proposal, a nice feather for SCC’s cap.

  21. city dweller says:

    Several things need to change before these development fiascos have a prayer of improving. Meetings for proposed development are hosted not by the city, but by the developer. They are responsible for inviting those abutters that are required by law to be invited. Members of the Planning Board usually attend, but are silent unless asked a direct question. I have been at meetings where developers were lying or misrepresenting something, everyone knew it, and Planning Board members in attendance said nothing. The head of the Planning Board, at a development meeting a few years ago, publicly stated that the Planning Boards’ job is to ‘make the neighbors comfortable with the project’. Really? Someone should show him his job description and point out his error!

  22. city dweller says:

    It seems some other cities are beginning to re-think pushing out long-term residents in favor of hipsters:

  23. MarketMan says:

    city dweller: This isn’t new thought. California has laws to prevent large real estate tax increases due to increased property assessments. These lawas are to protect long term residents too. But as they have discovered, the loss in tax revenue can be a problem.

  24. caroline says:

    Preventing huge increases isn’t a loss in tax revenue, it is a loss in the increase of tax revenue. It means that the city cannot calculate how much they can spend based on how high they can place assessments/taxes.

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