Assembly Square betrayal?

On March 1, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

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

If you had an urgent need to get to Denver, would you begin by sailing east? Probably not. Most of us don’t pursue important goals by heading in the opposite direction.

But that is what the Board of Aldermen will soon consider doing. They will vote on a Zoning Ordinance amendment designed to permit construction of a one-story 130,000-square-foot supermarket on the property next to the new Assembly Square Orange Line Station.

This would betray stated goals of Somerville’s Comprehensive Plan, whose process and products have won high praise as models of effective planning.

Ellin Reisner is President of Somerville Equity Partnership, and a member of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee. She tells me, “To go against what was agreed to in the plan would be very disappointing. Contradicting such a critical element worries me that the city won’t follow through.”

If Ms. Reisner feels a sense of impending betrayal, it is widespread and understandable. Hundreds of people attended 50 meetings and contributed thousands of hours to produce the Comprehensive Plan. City staff produced rich data and insightful analysis, providing an objective basis on which neighborhood advocates, business people, nonprofit administrators and public officials resolved conflicting interests and perceptions to find common ground.

Among the Plan’s consensus goals are preserving diversity, increasing jobs within Somerville, and growing the city’s commercial tax base. These days, preserving diversity means enabling people who grew up here to afford to keep living here.

The best affordable housing program is a good job. But Somerville has only 20,000 jobs and 45,000 working residents, the greatest imbalance among the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities. And our constrained city budget relies heavily on State Aid, which dropped from $57 million in 2002 to $30 million last year.

So the Comprehensive Plan calls for dense commercial development that would solve our fiscal woes and bring 30,000 new jobs to Somerville. It states that over 60% of job growth in the next ten years should be in Assembly Square. In fact, there is nowhere else that that much could come from.

But it’s a realistic goal, because Assembly Square bestrides $7 billion worth of transportation infrastructure. It’s realistic because research and development facilities offer the highest value land use, and Assembly Square is the best location for that sector, after Kendall Square and Longwood, which are filling up. It’s realistic because large office buildings and R&D facilities bring a wide spectrum of jobs with upward mobility, from entry-level to highly skilled.

But it’s realistic only if we enforce high-density zoning. That’s why the 12-acre IKEA parcel that abuts the new T station site is zoned to allow construction of 5 million square feet of office space. A development that took full advantage of that zoning would generate about $33 million in annual property taxes and bring about 15,000 permanent jobs.

A project that large is unlikely. So assume a project only a quarter that size, and compare that to what a 130,000-square-foot supermarket using 40% of the site would produce—about 200 permanent jobs and $320,000 in annual property taxes.

Jim Gallagher, a transportation planner and Steering Committee member, raises another interesting concern. “As a taxpayer, I don’t see how this helps me. Two supermarkets within a mile means one of them will fail. Either this one or the Stop and Shop would not be in operation within a few years, so the taxes collected would be the same. A supermarket on Winter Hill might be successful, but here just seems redundant.”

Aldermen Jack Connolly and Bill Roche submitted the proposed amendment in behalf of Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) who own Assembly Square Marketplace and are now building four well-designed multistory buildings in a well-designed urban fabric, across the parking lot from the Marketplace

They have signed a purchase and sale agreement for the IKEA property, the parcel in question. Neither FRIT, nor the commercial real estate market, is ready to build the dense development the property is zoned for. So FRIT would need a source of revenue to service their mortgage debt. Rent from a big-box supermarket lease would be a big help.

Ms. Reisner, Mr. Gallagher, and many others believe that a grocery store that would serve the Square’s future residents would be a worthwhile contribution to the emerging neighborhood. But squandering the IKEA property’s potential on a one-story supermarket and parking lot is not in the city’s best interest. That’s why it’s illegal.

Advocates have suggested a multistory supermarket design, like the Star Market in Cambridge’s University, as part of a larger structure. FRIT rejects this approach.

I can’t feel angry towards them. I like all the people that I know at FRIT. They are friendly, honest, forthright, and have complied with all the city’s and state’s legal requirements. But I understand that, by law, their primary obligation is to maximize return on their shareholders’ investment, and they are fulfilling their obligation admirably.

Our elected officials have other obligations that include our city’s fiscal health and its citizens’ wellbeing. I believe that approving the Zoning Ordinance amendment would betray those obligations.

Nor do I think that ‘Villens who advocate for wise development are the only ones who would feel betrayed. The Commonwealth, federal government, and MBTA have invested tens of millions of dollars to support high-density development at Assembly Square.

As Steering Committee member Wig Zamore testified to the Planning Board, “If we put a single story grocer next to the state’s first new subway stop in a generation, why would any future governor invest in Somerville? And why should our citizens continue to have faith in their future?”


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