Wrong for Assembly Square and wrong for Somerville

On January 5, 2018, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

The easiest way for a developer to make excessive profits is to choose a land use for which there is overwhelming market demand, build the densest possible project, and provide minimal amenities to the surrounding community.

This is how Somerville was developed in the late 19th and the 20th Centuries. It is why ours is New England’s densest city, with Massachusetts’ worst open-space-to-residents ratio. And because market demand, ease of development, and relaxed zoning enforcement favored residential uses in more recent decades, it’s why we have the worst jobs-to-workers ratio and a structural fiscal deficit.

To make such a play today, a developer must persuade city officials to disregard their own zoning ordinance and their citizens’ best interests. And that is what developers of the proposed “Assembly’s Edge” project will attempt to do with the Planning Board on Thursday, January 18th.


The Assembly’s Edge developers propose to abandon a portion of Kensington Street, combine it with an existing pocket park, and claim the result as a contribution to open space.
(click to enlarge)

The Project

They want to build two towers on a postage-stamp-sized lot, next to I-93. One would be a 21-story, 255-foot-tall apartment structure with 215 units; the other, a 13-story, 147-foot-tall hotel, with 180 rooms.

These would replace a Dunkin Donuts and a small café on a parcel that is less than an acre. The apartment building would be more than twice the height allowed by zoning. A paved and partially roofed “plaza,” smaller than either building’s footprint, would connect the two and be counted as “usable open space,”


Open Space

Squeezing so much development onto so little land leaves scant room for usable open space.

High-density development is livable and potentially enriching if it’s wisely designed, with ample open space. New York City, for example, enjoys proportionately four times the open space that Somerville has.

When density is the result of tall buildings, it’s critical to make open space proportionate not just to land area, but to total built square feet as well. A 21-story, 215-unit building needs more open space than the more modest structures specified in the zoning. Manhattan’s famous skyline, for example, surrounds an 840-acre Central Park, as well as being strewn with smaller usable open spaces.

Accordingly, Federal Realty Investment Trust’s (FRIT’s) masterplan, developed in collaboration with city staff, smart-growth advocates, and other stakeholders, specifies open-space allocations that are 10.4 percent of total building square footage. FRIT’s efforts have substantially increased the value of surrounding properties.

Exploiting that increased value, the Assembly’s Edge developers propose a usable-open-space-to-total-built-square-feet percentage on their own property of 2.3 percent, which consists of the aforementioned “plaza.”

They claim another 4.3 percent of “off-site open-space improvements” by counting two properties that are not theirs. One is Kensington Street, which they would have the city abandon. The other is land across Kensington, which belongs to the Public Storage facility, and which is a small park space that was already counted toward the facility’s own open-space requirements.

The Assembly’s Edge developers would consolidate those parcels and count them as their own open-space contribution. This would foreclose the best solution to Assembly Square’s access problems.


Traffic Impacts

Bounded by I-93 and the Mystic River, Assembly Square has only three significant vehicular access points, and the most travelled one is unsafe. Coming from the South on Route 28 requires drivers entering the district to weave between traffic exiting I-93 North.

The solution is a connecting roadway that would bear to the right from I-28 as it approaches I-93, pass under the Expressway, and link up to Foley Street, leading to the heart of the Square and the T station. As proposed, Assembly’s Edge would make that impossible.

Traffic congestion was a major concern of advocates during the planning of Assembly Square’s redevelopment. With the cancelling of such major planned developments as Telecom City, that concern receded. But the new Wynn casino will return it to the foreground.

In addition to bringing an Orange Line station, the 2006 Settlement Agreement between FRIT and the Mystic View Task Force established a 50,000-trip-per-day cap in Assembly Square, and the creation of a Transportation Management Association (TMA). The Assembly Edge application makes no mention of participation in a TMA.


Health Impacts

FRIT also sited its residential buildings a safe distance from I-93 and Route 28. People living within 100 meters of a highway have alarmingly elevated rates of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer due to the ultrafine particles that vehicles emit.

Though these particles’ effects were unknown when the Clean Air Act was passed, 3,000 peer-reviewed studies have since quantified their lethal impacts. The Assembly’s Edge developers say they will manage this health threat by siting the hotel between the apartment building and I-93 and by installing air filters in both. A better solution would be to not put residential uses on that site.


Land Uses

On balance, hotels are a net fiscal gain for the city. Although they create only a few, and mostly low-wage, jobs, their property, room, and meals taxes produce substantially more revenue than they cost in city services. They also produce affordable-housing and jobs linkage fees.

Residential uses are net fiscal losers. If they don’t house school-age children, high-end units can produce a modest net gain. But their proliferation is partly responsible for the decline of families in, and increased transiency of, Somerville’s population. Encouraging such projects on the rationale that 20% of the units will be “affordable” is, over the long-run, self-defeating for reasons that are worthy of their own column.

Our city’s finances depend on precarious state-aid welfare because only 14.6 percent of our assessed property value is something other than residential, which produces low tax revenues and high municipal costs. Assembly Square’s $7 billion worth of transportation infrastructure makes it an ideal location for office and lab development, which produces the reverse.

Every new residential project built there is a lost opportunity for Somerville to generate net income that can pay for what we need and relieve the tax burden on homeowners, which gets passed on to renters as well.

In recognition of this, the FRIT/Mystic View settlement anticipated land-use allocations for a full buildout across Assembly Square. The Assembly’s Edge project would use up half of the entire remaining residential allocation, while making a negligible contribution to the City’s job-creation goal.

In recognition of limits on the district’s water, sewer and traffic capacities, the settlement’s long-term plan sited the tallest buildings nearest the T station. Assembly’s Edge would put the Square’s tallest building on “assembly’s edge,” in the worst location for people to dwell and breathe.


Public Hearing January 18th

By ignoring legal height limits, and the on-site open-space ratios established by FRIT, these developers can exploit the value created by FRIT and pocket millions in creative profits. But Somerville deserves better.



11 Responses to “Wrong for Assembly Square and wrong for Somerville”

  1. Matt C says:

    I appreciate what you are saying, however, if we are going to build tall Assembly is the place where it should happen. If these properties will be revenue positive for the city I am okay with this. I agree I would prefer a commercial tower, or at least mixed.

  2. Anthony miller says:

    If it’s built we need to make sure the developer hires a responsible contractor. One the will hire local residents, uses apprenticeship programs, believes in paying a fair wage, and provides health insurance to its employees. All sub contractors on the job need to also be held to these standards.

  3. Elio LoRusso says:

    Talk about a postage stamp? How about a 69’ tall building with underground parking being proposed on the corner of George St and Broadway. 4 parking spots being taken away on George St. The development makes no sense at all. One community meeting held by the Alderman that did not go well and now the attorney and developer are trying to sneak it in. But not over my watch… If anyone reads this, please attend the ZBA meeting on January 17 at City Hall 6 PM.

  4. Aaron Weber says:

    Putting housing that close to the highway seems like a mistake, I agree. But a tall building in that area seems broadly like a good idea especially if there’s some way to make it easier to get across the highway by any means other than a car.

    Elio – I don’t know if that’s the right height, but the St. George/Broadway intersection is entirely reasonable as a location for a taller building.

    A loss of 4 parking spaces isn’t very significant either– do you have more info about the parking plan for that development?

  5. Villenous says:

    I’m for taller buildings and less parking. YIMBY.

  6. Katie Gradowski says:

    I agree. The health impacts are real and the traffic rationale seems persuasive. At the same time, the argument that there should be *no* new residential development in Assembly Square is an extreme position that should be approached with caution.

    “Every new residential project built there is a lost opportunity for Somerville to generate net income that can pay for what we need and relieve the tax burden on homeowners, which gets passed on to renters as well.” I understand the argument, but these benefits only apply if you are lucky enough to live in the city. Do we have any evidence that lowered rents due to lowered property tax burden will outpace the value of simply building additional units? I’m for commercial and I think Assembly Square could use more office space, but the notion that *any* residential is a problem — and that 20% is worthless because it cannot meet the scope of current demand — doesn’t seem to square with the pressing need for affordable housing in this city. If we seriously believe that commercial development will subsidize cheaper housing at comparable levels to the current IZ ordinance, I’d love to see that laid out in full. Likewise, I’d like to see that follow-up column on 20% being self-defeating; it seems like a conversation worth having. The anchoring residents in Assembly Square may well end up being the folks living in Avalon’s affordable units. In that context, building a very tall building on a very small piece of land seems smart.

    I’m not sold on this building for health reasons alone. If the Planning Board approves it, they should do so only with a detailed plan in hand for the (very expensive) PM filters they will need, including projected insurance costs for long-term health impacts. If the Assembly Edge developers want to build in a suboptimal location, the city should require an assessment of the long-term health costs, paid for by the developer, and then put them on the hook whatever those costs wind up being.

  7. Jeff Byrnes says:

    I’m with Katie & Aaron on the health impacts making this a poor site for housing, and I agree with Katie that the developer should provide an assessment for the long-term health impacts.

    And I, too, would love to see that column on 20% IZ being “self-defeating”, so count me with Katie on that score as well.

    Elio, based on the height of the building you mention at Broadway/St. George St, 69′ would suggest a 4- or 5-storey structure. That seems very reasonable for the area. I’d love to see the plans for it, and hear what the developer has to say about the parking loss & other traffic impacts.

  8. Wig Zamore says:

    Assembly Square is 145 acres, as large as downtown Boston from North to South Stations inclusive, and has a zoning ordinance which places the tallest buildings within 1000 feet of the new Orange Line station and a safe distance from the highways. Federal Realty alone has a legal settlement with Mystic View Task Force members and supporters that allows development of 2100 housing units on just their land, and they have recently committed to any new not yet approved approved blocks containing 20% affordable units. We could re-zone Assembly Square to put the tall and residential buildings a longer distance from the T-stop but that would result in greater reliance on highway vehicular traffic rather than the MBTA. Certainly the closer you put residents to the highways the greater the health effects on those families. If, instead, you put mostly sealed commercial lab or office space in those locations, as is currently planned, they buffer the highway pollution from residential and open space at Assembly. We could also allow much greater density across all of Assembly but that would certainly require a huge amount of new transportation and water and sewer expenditures in an area of Route 28, Route 38 and I93 that is already fully congested at afternoon rush hour.

  9. CAP says:

    After they demolish the Haitian cafe and the Dunkies, I sure hope they’ll put in a yoga studio or an organic craft beer emporium. Or maybe a dog spa. Or something where there is no chance that working class people or POC might show up. This is Somerville after all . .

  10. Kevin Donovan says:

    1. All major developments in the Boston area are near highways. These are the remaining large parcels of undeveloped land that were former industrial use and old rail car storage. Saying we can’t build housing there because it’s near a highway is not an excuse.
    2. No one in city hall—thank goodness—will oppose a project that prioritzies residents over cars. Reducing the need for parking by building near commercial centers and mass transit is core to the city’s stated goals. Somerville’s mayor has explicitly stated we need to be YIMBYs when it comes to residential construction.
    3. This project doesn’t have much regard for its neighbors because this site has no residential neighbors. It is bounded by a highway, big box stores, empty lots, and a storage facility.
    4. In the current state, the author both laments the loss of open space and bemoans the health risks for new residents. Why would we want someone to play frisbee on a dead grass patch in the shadow of a highway if it’s also unsafe to live there? As for the argument that it would be better from a health standpoint as commercial space, is it really so much more unhealthy to spend 10-14 hours a day there as a resident compared to 8-10 hours a day there as a worker?
    5. Don’t compare Somerville to NYC for a fair comparison of open space. NYC is more than 80 times the size of Somerville and includes Staten Island, Governors Island, Randell’s Island, and hundreds of miles of riverfront and shoreline that is added to the open space total. Most NYC boroughs are multiple times more dense than Somerville and they seem to benefit from the density rather than suffer from it.
    6. Not for nothing, but the city is approving projects that will still make sense in 2050 not 1950. Automated and electric vehicles will be the mainstay so emissions, noise and congestion will be far less of a concern for highway-adjacent residents. We should not say no to projects based on our present day near-sightedness.

  11. Bill Shelton says:

    The comparison between NYC and Somerville isn’t on “density.” Both cities benefit from their density. It’s on how density requires open space to make it work for humans, and that comparison is apt. Somerville’s status as New England’s densest isn’t because of our building massing, which is as low as our building heights. It’s because, proportionately, we lack the shared open space that NYC residents enjoy. To pay for open space, we need tall buildings—but where the infrastructure will support them and where ultrafine particles don’t kill residents.

    “Saying that we can’t build housing there because it’s near a highway is not an excuse.” No, it’s a reason. Somerville has the highest excess death rate from heart disease and lung cancer among Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, while our smoking rate is below average. Peer-reviewed studies have established that these deaths are clustered around our ultrafine particle sources, and I-93 in particular.

    Yes, playing frisbee on the “open space” that the Assembly’s Edge developers claim to create by taking over the Somerville street that could serve as the best vehicular entrance to Assembly Square would be unhealthy. That’s why Section 6.4.1 of Assembly Square’s zoning states that required open space “may be provided off-site through dedicated permanent open space that meets the site plan and design review criteria as determined by the SPGA.”

    And requiring 20% affordability isn’t what is “self-defeating.” We should get the highest inclusionary zoning requirement that we can. Encouraging massive production of unaffordable housing to get the 20% is self-defeating. And unsustainable.

    The housing market is regional. Even building all the new housing that we possibly could in our little city would not equilibrate supply and demand at a lower price point, unless doing so created conditions that substantially reduced the city’s attractiveness. 

    But it would bankrupt us. Residential uses pay 60% the tax rate of commercial, but generate
    twice the costs. Yet only 14% of Somerville’s assessed property value is commercial. That’s why we depend on precarious state-aid to cover our structural fiscal deficit. And every new housing unit that we build digs the hole deeper. 

    It also absorbs land that could be used for commercial development. The taxes generated by new commercial development could pay for what we need, including affordable housing that doesn’t have to come as 20% of more luxury condos. And the jobs generated could enable poor and working people to pay market rates if we were smart about preparing them for, and linking them to, those jobs.

    Basing an affordable housing policy on inclusionary zoning or on building more units is like the drunk who looks for his lost wallet under the street lamp because the light is better there. Instead, we need to permanently remove some portion of our housing stock from the inflationary spiral, using deed restrictions to make it affordable in perpetuity. Two ways to pay for that are the transfer tax, and affordable housing bonds. Which are part of that column that would be required to really get into this.

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