Meeting held to discuss future of Powder House School
By David R. Smith
“This is not a meeting about Tufts, and I’m not going to make it one,” Mayor Joseph Curtatone told the residents who filled a meeting room at the Tufts Administration Building (TAB) on Holland Street last Wednesday.
The meeting, when it was originally scheduled, was to be a final community forum with Tufts about the university’s plans for the Powder House School, vacant now for a decade, on Broadway behind the TAB.
Instead, the meeting was held to discuss where to go now that Tufts revealed to city officials that it had budgeted enough to buy the property but not enough to build on it. And whatever intentions it did have to build would not happen for up to 15years. The news came as a shock to both city officials and residents and was a departure from the requirements of the request for proposals (RFP) issued by the city for the property, which included a stipulation that any development at the site takes place within three years of winning the bid for the property.
“Tufts was hedging on that,” Curtatone said. “Tufts could not live up to their obligations under the RFP. They never planned enough money to build.”
The city did, however, keep the $10,000 deposit from Tufts, which the mayor said would be used towards improvements to the neighborhood.
The proposal from Tufts was one of six received through the RFP. The Powder House School Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), though not unanimous in its choice, rated Tufts the highest of the six. It recommended that proposal, as well as two others, to Curtatone for consideration. The mayor selected Tufts, and the city entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with the university to hammer out design details and legal agreements that would have been codified in a land disposition agreement that, in turn, would have been drafted and then voted on by the Board of Aldermen.
Curtatone expressed his displeasure upon learning that Tufts did not plan to build on the site for a decade or more, and that, he said, changed everything
“My response was they never should have been involved in the process,” he said. “The city ended it. I ended it. I was as frustrated and disappointed as you all are.”
It wasn’t just his office or the planning department or even members of the TAC who had put time into the RFP process and subsequent dealings with Tufts regarding the site.
An architectural firm hired by Tufts held two design brainstorming sessions with residents over the course of the winter, as well as one of two community forums to discuss project updates. During the design meetings, each of which lasted a few hours, residents were broken into groups to discuss design elements for the open space portion of the project, the actual building design and the vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian flow around the site.
While Tufts was quick to respond to the neighbors’ desire to see the project scaled back from a two-building design, which could have included one residential building of 35 units, to one office building, school officials were less willing to discuss how they actual planned to use the building.
The two alternate bidders chosen by the TAC each proposed building condos at the site, which would include a few affordable units under the city’s inclusionary zoning bylaw.
Representatives from the second alternate bidder, Diamond Sinacori, which proposed 35 condos, were on hand at the meeting, although Curtatone did not wish to address any specific developers at that point. The first alternate bidder, Davis Square Partners, put forth a 30-unit and 40-unit condo proposal.
Director of Planning George Proakis explained some of the reasons the other three RFP submissions weren’t selected by the committee. Mammoth Acquisitions, whose name elicited more than a few chuckles from the audience, had proposed a CVS with 35 condo units above it. Proakis said the committee was concerned a CVS would draw business away from Teele Square instead of creating something that would bring new customers to the square. Mammoth also has limited experience with housing developments.
“I don’t think they’ve ever done more than six housing units anywhere,” Proakis said.
The Somerville Community Corporation had proposed 35 to 50 units of all affordable housing but had not secured funding for the open-space portion of the project. And while the Powderhouse Development Group had proposed creating spaces for artists, its plans for 85 to 110 housing units went well beyond the 35 established as a limit in the RFP.
In outlining who bid and why some bids were accepted and others rejected, Proakis said there may be either suggestions out there should it go to bid again.
“Not that these are the only six idea in the world,” he said. “These are the only six we had in front of us through the RFP process.”
Although Curtatone was firm in his belief that the city is in need of more housing, noting the city’s SomerVision plan calls for 6,000 new units, he, too, seemed open to the idea of seeing if there might be fresh interest from new bidders, especially, as he and residents noted, the land in Somerville is more valuable now than when the RFP was first put out.
“Maybe we have to shake up the puzzle box to see if the pieces fit together more,” he said.
Curtatone, however, told residents that whether a new RFP is issued or the city works with either of the other two developers originally selected by the TAC, starting over did not mean starting over from scratch.
“Please don’t think your work has been wasted,” he said. “It hasn’t.”
Proakis also noted that Tufts had already undertaken some survey work on the site that would help the city and any future developers going forward. That work included generating a cost estimate on remediation requirements associated with demolishing the school, which Tufts placed at $1.8 million (it had budgeted $600,000), for things such as properly removing asbestos, as well as geographical survey work that showed the bedrock under the school would not likely allow for more than one level of underground parking.
While those estimates and that work could be peer reviewed to ensure their accuracy, the information gathered could at least be used to start talks with the next developer at a slightly more advanced level.
“Tufts is giving us all the work they did,” Proakis said.
Some residents in attendance expressed concern with beginning the RFP process all over again, although many seemed in favor it.
“I’m not sure we can just start over,” resident Eleanor Ramsey said. “”’I’d hate for it to be another 10 years.”
“We’re not starting over,” Curtatone responded. “We’re just recalibrating.”
One resident floated the idea of leasing the property in place of selling it, while others suggested opening the school to provide artists with workspace as the city figures out how to best dispose of the property.
Speaking to both the need for the short- and long-term future of the site, Curtatone agreed with the residents’ comments.
“There should never be a dead lot,” he said.
Another public meeting to discuss the next steps for redeveloping the site will be held within 30 days.
“We will not make a decision without coming back to the neighborhood,” Curtatone said. “Whatever is going to happen, we’ll do it to together,”