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Over the next few months, Somerville’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) is going to be taking up one of its most consequential decisions in recent memory. It concerns a development project that has large numbers of people around the city excited but some immediate neighbors leery.

The project in question is officially known by its address, 299 Broadway, but most people refer to it as “The Old Star Market Site in Winter Hill.” As a neighbor of this site who shopped at that Star Market prior to its closure in 2008, I know all too well how the blighted property has impacted Winter Hill. And I’m eager to see something done with it.

When a previous proposal just before the pandemic failed to gain traction, the Somerville Redevelopment Authority moved ahead with an urban renewal plan that received state approval. But prior to taking the site by eminent domain, the SRA determined that an existing proposal by a private developer meets the criteria and is giving that development a chance to proceed.

The developer in question is Mark Development. They’re a new name in Somerville, but impressed right away by bringing in highly-regarded partners, engaging the neighborhood, and incorporating feedback from public meetings into the project. As the proposal took shape, it drew a lot of support for its 250-plus units of housing, ground floor activation of commercial space, community and open space, and sustainability.

Then came a curveball: the discovery of large amounts of asbestos buried on the site earlier this year. I feared this would be the end of the road for the proposal, but Mark Development instead brought in Beacon Communities and came back with a proposal for a zero-parking development with pretty much a 50/50 split of affordable and market rate housing. We are talking about 132 affordable rental units at a range of income levels — and with a large number of two- and three-bedroom units. This is exactly what I’ve been calling for in our city, so I joined a lot of folks in being ecstatic about this.

Mark Development was able to remove all on-site parking thanks to the previous City Council removing parking minimums for new residential construction within half a mile of MBTA stations — in this case the Gilman Square Station opening next week, just down Marshall Street from the site. However, to prevent developers from just dumping demand for residential parking onto surrounding streets, there’s also a regulation on the books that makes residents of these new residential developments in transit walk sheds ineligible for resident parking permits.

The developer then announced they were going the Chapter 40B route with the project. Chapter 40B is a state-level mechanism for affordable housing development that makes the local ZBA the decision-making body. And Mark Development announced that as part of their application, they were going to be asking for a waiver for 78 residential parking permits, equal to 50% of the project’s 156 market rate units. This is in addition to the residents of the 132 affordable units being automatically eligible for resident parking permits via individual waivers of the regulation. (Residents of market rate units with accessibility needs also will be automatically eligible for individual waivers.)

Ward 4 councilor Jesse Clingan and I have requested the most analogous data on private vehicle ownership rates in affordable housing in the region, but a safe guess is that granting this parking permit waiver would result in a total of somewhere between 150 and 250 additional vehicles looking for on-street parking. In a meeting this summer, I requested to see data on on-street parking utilization on nights and weekends, and it showed 100 percent utilization in the streets immediately surrounding the development.

As a result, we find ourselves in a situation where this project is set to deliver an immense amount of good for our city as a whole, but is asking the immediate neighborhood to shoulder the burden of a dramatic spike in on-street parking demand. While it’s true that in the most optimistic scenario we are years away from the first residents moving in and exacerbating street parking conditions there — and by then we could see a drop in private vehicle ownership in the area due to the Green Line Extension — it’s clear that approval of this project will mean pain for neighbors who rely on street parking.

That’s why I’ve pushed Mark Development to explore agreements with the owners of nearby surface parking lots to acquire rights to private, off-street parking for their future residents. There are some large surface lots within a block of 299 Broadway that would fit the bill. Not only would every off-street parking spot help ease the potential parking crunch that much, but I believe this would be best for future residents of the development as well. 

So far I’ve yet to hear of any such agreements being reached, but I’m continuing to push Mark Development on this, and I hope the ZBA does as well — regardless of how they decide on the waiver request for resident parking permits for market rate units. I view this as helping the developer by encouraging them to improve their project by making their rental properties more attractive to potential tenants.

The first ZBA meeting about this development was going to be this past week, but that’s been pushed back to Wednesday, December 14 at 6 PM. There will be a series of ZBA meetings about this project in the coming months, including one in January that I expect will be largely devoted to the parking issue. Whether you’re a neighbor in Winter Hill or have an interest in housing and affordability, restaurants and retail, sustainability, or mobility in our city, I hope you’ll join me in attending these hugely important ZBA meetings.

Image courtesy of the City of Somerville.

Jake Wilson is a Somerville city councilor-at-large.

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