Planners hear from public on Union Square project

On June 26, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Washington St. plan links market rate and affordable housing
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An architect's rendering shows the proposed mixed use development on Washington Street looking toward McGrath Highway. ~Photo by Dimella Shaffer

An architect’s rendering shows the proposed mixed use development on Washington Street looking toward McGrath Highway. – Photo by Dimella Shaffer

By Elizabeth Sheeran

It’s a unique opportunity to increase affordable housing options for Somerville families and bring added vitality to Union Square. Or it’s a poorly designed, oversized building project that will hurt both property values and the quality of life for neighbors. It just depends whom you ask.

More than 100 residents crowded into the Visiting Nurses Association conference room last Thursday for the Planning Board’s first public hearing on a proposed mixed-use property development at the Eastern edge of Union Square, a project that has generated strong opinions from both sides in the past.

Public statements at the meeting ran about two-to-one in favor of the plan, which includes both market rate and affordable housing on the site of the Cota Funeral Home at 197 Washington Street, and the former Boys and Girls Club at 181 Washington. Proponents said the project will help preserve the neighborhood’s diversity by building in affordable housing before the planned Green Line Extension reaches Union Square and inflates real estate prices.

“This project can make a great neighborhood even more vibrant,” said Chris Wallerce, who identified himself as a Union Square homeowner living on Bow Street. “I believe that everyone in Somerville deserves a chance to live in that wonderful neighborhood. Especially with the transit coming in, it’s getting more and more expensive. And having something besides a vacant lot to look at coming in would be such a welcome addition to Union Square.”

But the most vocal opposition came from the project’s immediate neighbors, especially Prospect Hill residents whose homes look onto the rear of the property from Munroe and Boston Streets, who say the project design is just too big and too dense for the site.

“There isn’t a single person who’s an abutter to this project or within 100 feet, 200 feet, 300 feet or 500 feet of this development who is in support of it in its current form,” said Munroe Street resident Sam Miller.

The plan before the Planning Board is a joint proposal from the local non-profit Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) and Boston-based property developer Cathartes Private Investments, who linked their separate projects earlier this year. It includes two five-story buildings, separated by a single driveway leading to a shared rear parking lot, with retail and commercial space at street-level and residential units above.

The SCC plans to develop the building at the corner of Washington and Boston Streets as a 40-unit affordable housing project, subsidized by a mix of grants and tax credits. All of the one- two- and three-bedroom units would be reserved for residents who earn less than 60 percent of the area’s median annual income, or about $57,000 for a family of four, and at least 28 of the units would be reserved for current Somerville residents.

The Cathartes-owned building next door would include 44 apartments, of which all but the zoning-mandated 10 percent would be priced at market rates. Project architects, who have modified the plans over the course of several neighborhood meetings, said the buildings are designed to look like a single development, with no obvious distinctions between the market-rate and affordable-housing projects.

The plan also entails a re-design of the streetscape along a stretch of Washington Street, with widened sidewalks, new bike lanes and additional on-street parking. Some of the nearly 90 parking spaces behind the buildings will be reached by a new driveway off Boston Street.  And small plazas will be created at the edges of the project.

Supporters of the project noted that the developers had responded to neighborhood concerns by adding more community space, lowering the overall roof height by five feet, angling the building and reducing the number of stories along Boston Street to better preserve views, and removing so-called mechanicals like air conditioning units from the roof of the SCC-owned building.

SCC director Danny Leblanc said the unique private/non-profit partnership will transform an underutilized piece of land into the kind of transit-oriented development envisioned for Union Square, with over 50 percent of the units available for low or moderate income Somerville families.  SCC supporters rallied outside last Thursday’s meeting, and presented the Planning Board with a string of postcards supporting the project.

But project opponents at the meeting said they’re all in favor of creating more affordable housing in Union Square. What they object to is the size and layout of the proposed plan in its current form.

“It’s not about affordable housing. It’s about the building,” said Kristen Zecchi, who said the five-story building would block the view of downtown Boston that contributes to the property value for her home Munroe Street. “I’m concerned about the affordability of my own housing. It’s scary to look at the prospect of your mortgage being under water.”

Zecchi was among several residents who asked the developers to lower the building height still further and keep both rooftops clear of mechanicals. Neighbors also voiced strong opposition to the added driveway off Boston Street, and said the plan would make existing traffic and parking problems in the area even worse, especially when there’s snow. And opponents said the property doesn’t have enough community open space for the number of people who will live there.

Somerville Planning Director George Proakis said his department has reviewed the project plan and is recommending Planning Board approval. He said the proposal meets both the intent and the specific requirements of the CCD-55 zoning designation assigned the site during the 2009 Union Square re-zoning process, which envisioned mixed-use development along central corridors like Washington Street, with buildings up to 55 feet.

At Thursday’s meeting, area residents who spoke in support of the project noted that the properties were bound to be developed at some point, and said the joint proposal was a better bet for the neighborhood than what might be proposed by luxury condominium developers down the road.

“With the T coming, change will be coming here regardless of our involvement,” said Jeff Allen, who said he lived across the street from the proposed development. “Taxes will go up, housing prices will go up. But with 80 or so mixed income units, it’s the best plan I’ve seen to allow current families to remain here.”

The Planning Board asked the developers to look at removing mechanicals from the rooftop of the Cathartes-owned building and will review the project further at its next scheduled meeting on Thursday, July 11. Public comments will be accepted until Monday, July 8, and can be emailed to mwoods@somervillema.gov. More information about the project is on the Planning Department website, or at everyonessomerville.org.

 

24 Responses to “Planners hear from public on Union Square project”

  1. JMB says:

    Just another example of the city telling residents what’s best for them. The cycletrack, the Davis Square hotel, the Beacon Street hotel, the Powder House School … the is the latest of George Proakis and the city saying “it fits OUR vision, sorry abutters.”

  2. Harry says:

    Total disaster…

  3. Union Square Neighbor says:

    “This project can make a great neighborhood even more vibrant,” said Chris Wallerce, who identified himself as a Union Square homeowner living on Bow Street.
    What Chris didn’t say is that his wife Julia is “Manager of Marketing and Communications, Somerville Community Corporation”. They live 2300 ft (as the crow flies) from the proposed project.

  4. Tim Talun says:

    Thanks for a relatively balanced article.

    It can not be emphasized enough that just about everyone who lives near to this project is opposed to it as proposed. Even more would have come to the meeting to express concerns had they not been intimidated by the SCC’s “advocacy”.

    There is more to the ‘Somervision’ plan than just calling for subsidized housing at the expense of everything else people care about and value. Somervision contains a balanced set of goals to create growth and development that benefits everyone. With the exception of finally agreeing to pedestrian improvements on Washington St, this development clearly falls short of accomplishing any of these goals in order to maximize the amount of housing. A smaller project would be a better project.

  5. Harry says:

    Some people are making a pile of $s off this project. What do you expect, that they are going to see things objectively? Their goal is to get their prize, and the hell with Union Sq and the neighborhood! They’ll say anything they have to push this through.

  6. Greg says:

    LeBlanc and SCC are nothing more than frauds who will say and do whatever it takes to keep their gravy train rolling. Does known else find it sleazy that SCC has partnered with a private, for profit developer in CPI?

    I would love to see the Feds conduct a audit on their organization. It might be quite eye opening what is uncovered.

  7. Bostom says:

    It’s probably too late on this one, but unless and until you change the people in City Hall, starting at the top, nothing is going to change.

    The favored few will still get their pockets lined, the winks and the nods and the envelopes will still be exchanged, and the rest of us will continue to get crushed by the taxes and fees.

    Unless, of course, you get hit by a bicyclist first.

  8. Somervilleguy says:

    Leblanc is a thief plan and simple. He uses scare tactics to scare people so he can get his way while getting a large 6 figure salary for his so called advocacy for the poor. Plus he has his family on the payroll. Greg is right, this so called non profit is being used to line LeBlanc’s pockets and they need to be audited

    He plays these people like a cheap fiddle, take a look at how many people living in the buildings they have already built actually came from Somerville. They keep telling us they are helping Somerville people, what a load of bull.

  9. Sam says:

    The developers have taken an “all or nothing” approach which is very troubling. They either want to suggest that the projects move forward exactly as they’ve proposed (size and density) or they suggest people will be out on the street and there is no funding to make the developments happen. This attitude is dishonest. But the underlying problem here is that the City railroaded residents a few years ago to create zoning that “could” allow something like this if the Planning Board doesn’t act to protect current property owners. Residents need to voice their opposition through appearing at the next Planning Board Meeting on July 11th and writing to the City, Alderman and Mayor. Signing a petition wouldn’t be bad.

  10. Marga Hutcheson says:

    I just wanted to say, in response to Sam Miller’s quote in the article, that I live 300 feet from the site (on Rossmore Street) and I wholeheartedly support the proposal. The development would be a great addition to my neighborhood in terms of both its function and its design. What I like about Somerville is its diversity and affordability. Lets keep it that way.

  11. Chris Wallerce says:

    I had no idea this guy was so connected to the project. Completely disingenuous, no, completely dishonest. That shows you what SCC is made up of. Shelton took it over and changed it into a think tank that spits out statistics. Dennis took it over and turned it into a development engine that never stops. Big, Big, Money. This group used to provide real services, food pantry, etc. now they’re out for big bucks. How dishonest to not give full disclosure that you’re married to one of their executives. But, why am I surprised?

  12. MDNIONAKIS says:

    ALL IN ALL MR. LEBLANC AND THE SCC PUSHED FOR THE REZONING OF UNION SQ. THEN HE CAME UP WITH THE PLAN TO PURCHASE THE B&G CLUB AND PUT 40 UNITS OF LOW INCOME HOUSING. WHEN THERE WAS TREMENDOUS OPPOSITION FROM THE NEIGHBORS WHO REALLY LIVE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (UNLIKE MS. HUTCHESON WHO SUPPOSEDLY LIVE ON ROSSMORE STREET), HE FELL BACK AND REGROUPED AND CAME UP WITH A PLAN TO INCORPORATE ANOTHER 44 UNITS OF MARKET RATE HOUSING. HE STILL DOES NOT GET 40 WAS TOO LARGE SO 84 IS ACCEPTABLE. THE SCC AND MR. LEBLANC HAVE TRIED TO RACIALLY DIVIDE AND CALL ALL WHO ARE OPPOSED CLASSIST. BAD P,R,.
    THEY ARE NOTHING BUT A BAND OF COPORATE PROFITEERS HIDING BEHIND THE GUISE OF LOW INCOME HOUSING!!!!!!!
    IT WAS REAL DISHEARTENING TO HEAR MR. PROAKIS FROM THE CITY WHO WE PAY HIS SALARY TRYING TO NIP EVERY COMPLAINT THAT THE NEIGHBORS HAD BY SAYING HE HAS PERSONALLY WORKED ON THE PROJECT TO MAKE IT MORE FAIR AND EQUITABLE FOR ALL PARTIES. THEY ARE GOING TO RUIN UNION SQUARE.

  13. MDNIONAKIS says:

    MS. HUTCHESON WHO ALSO WORKS FOR THE SCC THROUGH
    http://WWW.EVERYONESSOMERVILLE.COM

  14. ritepride says:

    Hopefully when “Whitey’s” trial is over the Justice Dept will make the Assembly Row, Developers and politicians a good “targets of interest”.

  15. Bob says:

    Make sure you get your scorecard so you can follow along.

  16. Personally, I like SCC and the work that it does. Some of the folks who are ranking on SCC for making money by building housing would be even louder if it got all its money from the taxpayers. (Own it, you would be!) Unless you don’t think Somerville needs an agency that creates affordable housing, it has to get its money from somewhere. Be fair.

    Now, I am not the person to evaluate building design. I have no eye for that kind of thing. But when I hear this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach by opponents of the project, it makes me take their objections less seriously. I support affordable housing in Somerville.

  17. To: Dennis says:

    where do you think SCC gets its funding from? yeah, my taxes. do you think they’re funded by some corporation or fairy godfather? building these things keeps them employed. They don’t give a rats behind about Somerville, they care about their own employment and building their agency. Check them out, all federal funding.

  18. MarketMan says:

    Dennis: Many people say they support affordable housing, but nobody has clearly explained why these arbitrary income thresholds make housing actually affordable. Affordable to who? To a special few. Why 60% of median income?? What if my family makes 70% of median income? Then we can’t qualify for “affordable housing” and we can’t afford market rate housing. How is that affordable??? To me, inclusive is people pay what things cost in a particular market.

    All affordable housing does is hollow out the middle income ranges. The city will fill up with people at the lower end and top end of the income brackets. Why not let things fill in evenly from the top-down? I’d really like an honest answer to this sincere question? Why are the people at the lower end of the income spectrum special and deserve special treatment? Any why are people in the middle range of the income spectrum not *entitled* to live here as apparently lower income folks are?

  19. Jonathan Michaud says:

    The problem with affordable housing is that the income limits never take into account mandatory monthly student loan payments.

    Therefore it discriminates.

    Example. Person A earns $30k and qualifies. Person B earns $41k and has $12,000 a year in student loans payments to make. Person B makes too much money apparently – but actually has less disposable income.

  20. Barry the Pig says:

    MarketMan and Jonathan are right, of course. These decisions are arbitrary. What is needed is some kind of lottery system with odds weighted by income. So, if you make more money your odds are somewhat lower, but you are still eligible. The problem then, becomes making sure the lottery system is not rigged.

  21. student loans says:

    don’t start about student loans. everyone’s got some kind of debt. medical expenses, etc. this doesn’t compare to choosing a school, signing up for loans, then whining about it endlessly, and expecting some kind of relief. You purchased an education, agreed to the price, now pay for it! I think the terms were pretty clear, or were you deceived somehow?

  22. Bostom says:

    Marketman is right. Why are we being asked to subsidize anyone’s rent to live in a particular building, or neighborhood, or city? Most especially when that subsidy funds a project almost universally opposed by the abutters, uses our taxes to make a hefty profit for a private developer and lines the pockets of the non-profit sponsor? How is SCC non-profit? It starts with the outrageous salary the director is paid: why, if SCC’s in the business of fighting poverty, don’t they pay wages that would make the director eligible to live there, instead of on Beacon Hill or in the Back Bay?

    But the central question asked remains unanswered – why are residents, now hard pressed by ever increasing taxes and fees to remain here – being forced to subsidize others who can’t afford to? I drive a used Toyota because that’s what I can afford. I’d like a new Lexus – why won’t the hardworking people who pay taxes (and higher rents based on those taxes) in Somerville buy me one? I’ll tell you why – because I don’t deserve it because I didn’t work for it. How is this boondoggle any different?

  23. MarketMan says:

    student loans: I agree with your comment but the theme behind your message is applicable to *all* expenses. For example, if we compare 2 households that have the same income. The household with more kids clearly has less disposable income. But those were choices they made and now they have to live with the income and family size they have. Same goes for the cell phone plan you buy, the clothes you wear, the car you to choose to buy, the cable tv plan you choose to pay for, and guess what else… *where* you choose to live. If you choose to live in an area that is expensive, you should have to pay the price. And that’s always been my point. Life is about choices. If you can’t afford the life you want to live (including where you want to live), then maybe you need to make different choices.

    I know to some readers I sound very harsh and non-empathic. I understand why you feel that way. But the harsh reality is that some people are less fortunate. I don’t think we should make unfair rules to benefit those and make others less fortunate (ie, price out the middle income folks). I think our energy as a community (and government level) should be focused on helping people get out of the less fortunate situations and helping people avoid getting trapped into those situations…. creating jobs, etc etc. Not simply patching things by creating additional unfair entitlements.

  24. student loans says:

    Bostom/Marketman–you’re singing my song. I’m sick of seeing people living irresponsible lives and getting these deals. Nobody has a problem with someone who’s had bad breaks or can’t get a good job. But people having babies too young, or too many, or all the other decisions we make end up getting “aff. housing” college loans the same. I went to state college. People who are above the income limits are working their butts off. Can’t help feeling we get screwed because we’re responsible for our actions.

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