“Last month, the Planning Division released a 138-page plan, nominally produced by consultants, but heavily influenced by planning staff, that was somehow worse than the draft they had been entrusted with eleven months earlier.”
By Mystic View Task Force, Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, Green and Open Somerville, and Union Square Neighborhood Council
Twenty-three years ago, our city was in decline, with meager job opportunities, underfunded city services, malnourished nonprofits, and scarce and poorly maintained usable open space. At the same time, Greater Boston’s most promising development site lay on our eastern edge—145 acres next to $7 billion worth of transportation infrastructure.
An ill-conceived development plan supported by city officials proposed squandering this asset on seven big-box stores. A group of Somerville citizens proposed an alternative plan that would produce 30,000 new jobs, $30 million in annual net tax revenue, and 30 acres of open space. While their eight-year campaign was only partially successful, it stimulated the construction of a new transit stop and a wave of economic development, transforming our city’s prospects and its regional reputation.
Seven years ago, city planning staff promoted a collaborative process to plan Union Square’s redevelopment. Hundreds of citizens collectively gave thousands of hours, pouring out their hopes and best thinking for their neighborhood and city. Retained consultants came back with a plan. Heavily constrained by city staff and developer US2, much of it somehow embodied the opposite of what the public had said it wanted.
Planning staff cajoled and bullied community advocates and others into capitulation. Elected officials approved zoning to implement the plan. Today, a twenty-six story residential tower rises in front of the Union Square Green Line station, next to a 345-foot-long parking structure that will truncate the neighborhood like a seven-story tumor—a hundred-year blunder.
Last November, planning staff promoted participation in an Assembly Square planning process. Scores of Somervillians, including professionals in urban design, economics, sustainability and infrastructure, participated in a series of charrettes, offering rich insights. That process ended with a preliminary design that most participants felt good about. Consultants went off to improve on it.
Last month, the Planning Division released a 138-page plan, nominally produced by consultants, but heavily influenced by planning staff, that was somehow worse than the draft they had been entrusted with eleven months earlier. Citizens were told that they had sixteen days to submit comments. While those of us with jobs and families have not had time to detail all of the plan’s inadequacies, this is some of the more obvious damage that it would codify.
- Somerville cannot meet its long-term fiscal needs, replace crumbling infrastructure and pay for affordable housing without greatly increasing the commercial portion of our property tax base. Yet the Plan anticipates that 50% of built square footage would be residential, mostly unaffordable housing. This contradicts SomerVision’s stated objectives.
- Massive above-ground parking structures waste precious land that can host usable open space or the commercial development that can pay for it. But with current Assembly Square property values, capable developers can realize more profit by building and leasing on top of underground parking.
- The preliminary plan showcased a visionary linear park running the length of Assembly Square, surrounded by dense urban development. Few cities in the world enjoy such an amenity, and our city, starved for green space, deserves it. The debased plan cuts the park by two-thirds.
- The treatment of all connections between Assembly Square and the rest of the city is inadequate to the need. Everett and Medford residents and Orange Line riders can more easily and safely reach the Square than most Somervillians. The potential of Assembly Square as an employment center for Somervillians cannot be realized without adequate mobility options.
- Moving the eastern entry road from McGrath Highway further from the river would create substantially more green space.
In response to these and other flaws, citizens requested a ninety-day extension of the comment period. At its November 4th meeting, Planning Board members and planning staff disregarded these.
Two decades ago, the intransigence of city officials led Somerville citizens to prosecute three successful lawsuits. Although their outcomes improved a defective Assembly Square planning process, litigation, by its limited nature, could not realize the Square’s potential.
Collaboration works better.