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Mayor Curtatone, esteemed Alders, and members of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development,
We board members of the Somerville Arts Council are excited to hear about your open-discussion series on zoning. It is testament to the openness of your administration that you are hosting these meetings. We plan on attending the July 10th meeting on the arts and the creative economy, and offer these thoughts in writing before the meeting by way of broaching certain topics that we and other members of the creative community have been talking about lately.
Somerville has built a name for itself as a home for the arts and cultural innovation. Many of our neighbors are writers, painters, actors, storytellers, musicians and every other type of creator in between. Our creative residents have helped make the city the vibrant community that it is — all the while helping to build and sustain to the local economy.
This is far from a secret. A recent NPR episode on what the new Boston arts commissioner should do for Boston included a lengthy discussion of Somerville’s creations; cultural critic Greg Cook, for instance, went into great detail about our festivals like Honk and Porchfest.
But more and more of Somerville’s creators are leaving town for affordable space elsewhere. This is because Somerville’s home values and rents have increased by a third in the past 5 years, with the average home jumping to $462,000, and the average apartment now renting for $2,300. During this same 5 year period, the US has seen a 10% inflation in the cost of living.
As board members of the Somerville Arts Council, we are glad to see the city and various nonprofit organizations take a number of steps to keep residents in town and offset the rising cost of living. We applaud their efforts, and look forward to even more work being done in this area. And we feel strongly that this energy also be directed to keeping the city’s creative community here in town. A Somerville with fewer artists would be a less vibrant place.
One solution is to expand, and strengthen, the 2009 arts overlay zoning district. This district sits in and around Union Square, and is designed to include space for the city’s creators. Among other zoning changes, the district allows for arts-related uses, such as live/work spaces, studios, galleries, etc. Its provisions makes it easier for people who want to set up shop in existing space by relaxed parking requirements, and it awards density bonuses to developers who create new spaces that offer arts-related uses.
When it was devised through the vision of the Mayor, the Alders, and the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, the arts overlay zoning district was hailed by arts organizations like the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and by members of the planning community alike as a model. It was one of the first such overlays in the region, and has since served as the inspiration for rezoning discussions in a number of cities and towns in Massachusetts.
The arts overlay zoning district is yet another innovation that we should feel proud of. And it’s an innovation that should be expanded. We’re at an exciting time for Somerville, as we see more and more growth and development. We’ve got a unique opportunity to build for the future, and to redefine what can be built. So let’s take the arts overlay district, and expand it. Let’s expand the overlay to other parts of Union Square. Let’s also look to other parts of Somerville, and find other sections where we can encourage space for creativity. Let’s take the small footprint of the arts overlay district, and make it the blueprint for more creative zones throughout the city.
And while we’re at it, let’s sharpen this tool, and give more incentives to landlords and developers, so they will want to provide spaces for creatives in their properties. Since the overlay was approved, only new businesses using existing spaces have taken advantage of the code. No new artist live/work spaces have been created, even though that was an important part of the zoning. We understand that part of this is due to banking practices, but another part seems related to incentives. If the incentives are stronger, then owners and developers will choose to participate more, and the zoning ordinance will become even more effective towards its stated purpose. And Somerville’s cultural vibrance and creative economy will only increase.
As we mentioned before, this letter represents some ideas that have come up in our discussions. Of course, these are only a few potential solutions, and they only deal with zoning issues, not other mechanisms that might solve the issues we’re facing. We have seen the city implement a number of innovative ideas, and look forward to seeing even more.
We’ve spent decades drawing creative people to Somerville, and have enjoyed the cultural and economic wealth that these creative citizens have provided the community as a whole. So let’s spend some time and energy finding ways to keep them here. Let’s keep what we’ve built, and build it even stronger.
The Somerville Arts Council advisory board
Tim Devin, chair
Michael J Epstein