Letter to the Editor: 181/197 Washington Street

On July 8, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

(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.)

Dear Editor:

Much of the opposition to the SCC/Cathartes proposal for redevelopment of the vacant Boys & Girls Club and Cota Funeral Home at 181/197 Washington Street has focused on the height of the buildings (5 stories) and density. While it is important to acknowledge abutters’ concerns, it is also imperative to keep in mind that this project is precisely what the city has called for through its resident-driven SomerVision process and more specifically, the 2009 rezoning of Union Square. Believe it or not, the Board of Alderman unanimously approved new zoning to the Washington Street area of Union Square specifically to encourage exactly what SCC and Cathartes are proposing- high-density commercial and residential activity to support a thriving urban neighborhood served by new transit (the Green Line). The SCC/Cathartes proposal goes a step further by including housing affordable to working families and by pursuing green design.

Some opponents claim that the height and density are out of scale with the neighborhood, but in fact the original scale of Union Square was far denser than anything we see here today or even what is being proposed at 181/197 Washington Street. This new zoning is only one part of a larger, visionary effort on behalf of the City and the thousands of residents who participated in SomerVision to strengthen neighborhood commercial centers that integrate residential uses, facilitate transit-oriented, neighborhood infill development, and transform key opportunity areas such as Union Square into dynamic economic engines for our city.

The SCC/Cathartes proposal is not the only one of its kind being proposed and even already approved for this part of Somerville. In fact, just a few blocks away at 90 Washington Street, the Planning Board recently approved Cobble Hill Apartment Company’s proposal for 159 new units of housing- mostly market rate- also at a height of 5 stories, but far surpassing the density of the SCC/Cathartes project. Further down the road on McGrath Highway,the City is considering extending the new zoning in Union Square to accommodate developer interest in building more five+ story apartment buildings over retail. Add to that the SomerVision commitment to increasing Somerville’s housing stock by 6,000 units- including 1,200 permanently affordable – and I see no reason why this project should not be approved.

It would be a shame to miss this opportunity to significantly contribute to Union Square’s vitality and preserved diversity, while also meeting the larger goals of SomerVision, solely to heed the objections of a few property owners who may lose pieces of their views.



Elijah Plymesser




44 Responses to “Letter to the Editor: 181/197 Washington Street”

  1. Union Square Neighbor says:

    It is very misleading to act as though Union Square is a homogeneous area, any more than Davis Square is. It is true that the core of Union Square — near the intersection of Somerville Ave, Washington, Webster, Stone and Bow streets– had many taller buildings in the past. They were commercial, civic or institutional, but not residential, and a few are still standing. But just a block or two away from the core the heights and densities have always been much less. That’s why a historic 1860 mansion with large grounds has survived to this day, although this project would demolish it for a parking lot. Residential neighborhoods were built just outside the core, and the reason there is some much resistance now is because the proposed housing project violates a centuries-old pattern of development. If this project was in the core of the square there would be far fewer objections. It would be even better if the project renovated one of the partially vacant historic buildings in the core.
    There are former industrial areas near Union Square that deserve development to greater density and height, but the important thing about these places is that they are not immediately adjacent to established residential areas. In the case of the Cobble Hill development, once a vital residential neighborhood that was torn down in anticipation of the Inner Belt expressway, so it is also a good choice for dense development.
    The proposal for a 5 story apartment building along McGrath has also met opposition by neighbors, but in contrast to SCC, at least that developer has met with neighbors BEFORE buying the property. As tangible development proposals come out, and Union Square/Prospect Hill residents see how they would impact the neighborhood, they have come to realize that the recent rezoning over-reaches when it calls for increased height and density outside of the core of the square or former industrial areas.
    As the Red Line was about to come to Davis Square, the city pushed for a shopping mall surrounded by parking that we now recognize was a bad idea. Reacting to this, concerned neighbors led by the Davis Square Task Force pushed for development that respected the existing patterns of building and their uses. Thanks to them, Davis Square development has been concentrated in the commercial area, with some high density development on former industrial sites. This is a good example to follow in Union Square as it anticipates the coming of the Green Line.

  2. Greg says:

    Mr. Plymesser, Why did you not take the time to disclose the fact that you are a Land Use Committee Member at SCC, or maybe the fact that you live all the way on the other side of Somerville on Raymond Ave!?! Just knowing those 2 facts discredit your letter. Nice try though, young lad.

    P.S. The last sentence in your biased op-ed piece is a direct insult to every abutter and homeowner on Prospect Hill who will be negatively impacted by this monstrosity.

  3. TimT says:

    Full disclosure, Elijah – you live in West Somerville and work for the SCC as a member of their land use committee.

    As a member of the Somervision steering committee and a resident who lives down the street from the proposed development, I think it is clear that this is exactly the type of thoughtless development Somervision was intended to prevent.

    Anyone who really cares about affordable housing should care enough to want to get it right. That means creating projects that are integrated into surrounding neighborhoods and provide homes for the people who live there, not just housing. This project provides the absolute minimum to create the absolute maximum number of housing units. That’s not the vision all those residents came together to create.

    Your comment about views is insulting and arrogant. The loss of view affects everyone who walks down Munroe Street and enjoys the view today, not just abutting homeowners. It is one of the most unique streets in all of Boston, and losing this would be an incredible loss for everyone, including the future residents of this project.

    Why don’t you provide a link to your plans and specifically point to how it meets the larger goals of Somervision instead of using the same generic talking points?

  4. Greg says:

    Mr. Plymesser, Why did you not take the time to disclose the fact that you are a Land Use Committee Member at SCC, or maybe the fact that you live all the way on the other side of Somerville on Raymond Ave!?! Just knowing those 2 facts discredit your letter. Nice try though, young lad.

    P.S. The last sentence in your biased op-ed piece is a direct insult to every abutter and homeowner on Prospect Hill who will be negatively impacted by this monstrosity.

  5. Plijah Elymesser says:

    Walks away with tail between legs :(

  6. Lee Elmont says:

    Keep up the pressure and stop this monstrosity. Keep fighting the good fight! This proposal is a Trojan Horse. Stop it in its tracks.

  7. MarketMan says:

    Union Square Neighbor: Well put!

  8. neighbor says:

    This organization should be investigated, its clear the neighbors don’t want it, now lets see what candidates for Alderman in Ward 3 and At large have to say, if they go along with it, vote against them. This guy LeBlanc has a little kingdom going for himself, this letter is put up by the SCC,… A great idea would be to find out how board members are selected and then one by one unseat them.

  9. unbelievable says:

    how many SCC employees or cohorts will pass themselves off as approving neighbors? This is just unbelievable. Thank you to those keeping an eye on this and exposing them. They’re all making a nice living and outright lying to all of us. The snarky comment about views sums it all up. How’s that diversity working out in Davis Sq? I see white, mid-to-high income professionals and not much else. If this project doesn’t have the results they predict, what happens then? yeah, they just cash their checks.

  10. Jim says:

    SCC to neighbors => drop dead

    The IRS should really take a look at the SCC. This organization stinks

  11. Another Union Square neighbor says:

    I live in Union Square and I’m totally for this project. We’re going to see 10-story buildings coming in before too long (and I’m for that too). I find the opposition on this to be kind of sleazy and extremely short-sighted. SCC is building the kind of mixed income housing that’s rapidly disappearing in Somerville.

    The market’s not going down. As a property owner, I like that, but I’d also like lower middle class families to be able to live here.

    Something big is going onto that parcel. It’s zoned for density. Got a feeling all these so called concerned neighbors won’t say boo if the SCC project fails and some luxury condo developer comes in later to build something equally as large.

  12. Union Sq transient says:

    I live in Union Sq too, mostly, just not at a permanent address. Perhaps many of you have run into me on the street. I actually used to own a house in the area, but then I got sick and lost it. There is not much support for people with a mental problem these days. Whatever, I just wanted to remind people that there are people like me around as well. I did not get sick because of something obvious I did. I never did drugs and I only had an occasional beer at the most. I just got unlucky. I’m trying to get back on my feet, get a new job and all. Finding a decent place to live in an area that is not a total depressing dump is a huge step in this direction.

  13. Greg says:

    The neighbors have asked for the buildings to be lowered to 4 stories. If that is done everyone can and will live in harmony. As long as SCC remains the greedy frauds they have proven to be by not compromising with the neighborhood and lowering the development to 4 stories, it will never be welcomed by the neighbors. If this development is approved as is it will be the a failed project of epic proportions as they neighborhood by in large will never embrace the tenants and/ or businesses that will occupy the space.

    This development is driven solely by money and greed! Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric SCC spews, it is nothing but lies!

  14. Elijah Plymesser says:

    Thanks for all of your comments people. I am indeed a resident of the other side of Somerville- and I have been a volunteer on the SCC’s Land-Use committee for a little over 6 months, I apologize for that being occluded to readers, I thought that it was going to be printed at the bottom in italics as it was in the Wicked Local letter I sent (same text) http://bit.ly/11yS50l
    As an interested resident (and taxpayer) of Somerville and a student of urban planning alone I support this project. With or without my relatively limited involvement in the SCC, I think it is necessary to increase the affordable housing stock and consistent with the SomerVision plans goal to increase housing by 6k (with 1,200 permanently affordable) units, green space by 125 acres and 30k new jobs. It’s no secret that Somerville is already the densest city in NE, and you aren’t going to increase housing stock AND green space AND space for workers without increasing density. I think that is simple math.
    For more on how this project fits snugly into the SomerVision plan, see sections E-I. “Preserve and expand an integrated, balanced mix of safe, affordable and environmentally sound rental and home-ownership units for households of all sizes and types from diverse social and economic groups.” AND E-II.”Promote mixed-use, mixed-income transit-oriented development to provide new housing and employment options” Both of those stipulations very much seem to suggest that this project fits the bill to a tee. It is mixed-use, mixed-income, transit oriented, increases housing stock, and increases density. These are things Somerville needs if it wishes to be a relevant urban area in the 21st c. It is natural that people are opposed to change, especially in their immediate surroundings-but when looking at a city at a more holistic level view, this type of intransigent opposition seems both shortsighted and selfish. Somerville will continue to change, with or without this project. Density will go up, housing will be increased, and as a result Somerville will continue to prosper.
    @Union Square Resident: Yes, the core used to be smaller. Yet this proposed development is approximately 325 meters from the union sq. core (I used The Precinct to the Funeral Home entrance measure) It is reasonable to imagine that as the overall population and development increases, so too does the urban core. I don’t believe 325 meters is a stretch. And for better or worse, the days of mansions with sprawling lawns are over. They are a poor use of a limited land resource wouldn’t you say? I thank you and appreciate your comments, I think it is very important to consider the impacts of new developments and to find the most appropriate locations and scales. Thank you for being respectful, civil, and contributing to a discussion unlike some of the other commenters. 
    @TimT: Yes, full disclosure. I was not attempting to be some kind of sly SCC agent provocateur-I included my information in my email, not in the text. Next time I will be sure to include it clearly in the text of submission. Despite this, I did not claim anywhere to be a resident of Union Sq. or an abutter, or anything other than a concerned citizen. If the 4 SCC meetings that I have attended discredit my views in everyone’s eyes then I am disappointed in the factionalism that runs deep surrounding this project. I am interested how you, as a member of the steering committee, envision the execution of increasing housing, green space, and workplaces without increasing density? Is there anything acceptable about the current project? Would it be admissible if it were 4 instead of 5 stories? As for the view, scroll to the very bottom for renderings from behind the building. I didn’t make them so I can’t vouch for them, but I assume the architect is accurate in his depiction of the view. http://www.everyonessomerville.org/

    @Greg: No they don’t. I pay taxes and choose to volunteer my time with an organization that is working to make Somerville a better place for all its residents. They don’t pay me to give up the limited evenings I spend there- so I don’t believe I ought to be penalized and have my views negated because I believe in contributing to my community.

  15. Matt says:

    @Another Union Square neighbor – I agree with increasing density but building tenements so that we can have huge concentrations of poverty rather than following the city guidelines that provide for almost 20% set aside for mixed income development is not something I will ever agree with.

  16. Ray Spitzer says:

    Elijah, congratulations, you are volunteering to destroy Somerville.

  17. Elijah Plymesser says:

    @Matt: The building proposed will be a touch over 50% affordable to middle income housing. I think this is a far cry from a tenement development. In addition middle/low-income housing is very different from section 8 housing-these units will be in the income range for many blue collar professions. And inclusionary zoning requirements are between 12.5% and 15%-and they only are effective when neighbors don’t stonewall new developments.

  18. MarketMan says:

    Matt: I agree. And even for the 20%, it should be a sliding scale of income (relative to median) to cost (relative to market rate)… not simply an upper income threshold. We don’t want to hollow out the middle income ranges.

  19. Elijah Plymesser says:

    @Jim: You can peruse the SCC’s 990 forms from the past 4 years here: http://www.guidestar.org/organizations/23-7293380/somerville-community-corporation.aspx

    I implore you to inspect them and if you find any thing that raises eyebrows, please report it to the community and the IRS. If not, stop your libelous fear-mongering.

    @Greg: Please explain your logic. You say that the neighborhood will never accept the businesses and tenants there if the project stays 5 stories. But if it is 4 stories you are all good? The types of stores and make-up of the tenants will not change-it will simply be a less efficient use of resources. What you are proposing is to cease being good neighbors and decent people if you don’t get your way-and to punish the new inhabitants of the building (who bear no responsibility for the building) by ostracizing them? That doesn’t sound very neighborly or mature to me. Also if you believe the SCC are greedy frauds, please visit the link above so you can inspect their finances as well. Tell us what you come up with please.

  20. Matt says:

    No EP – the proposed building is 100% non-market rate and the second Carthides building is ~20%.

    Saying that it is the same project is disingenuous

  21. Matt says:

    @Elijah Plymesser et. al. I think there are a handful of concern areas and everyone is not concerned about the same thing.
    – Density
    – Height
    – % income restricted housing
    – destruction of a historic site
    – look/feel of the structures
    – etc.

    The one common thing is there is very little support for this project outside of SCC employees and volunteers who are writing letters to the editor of this and other news outlets. Most of the time without explicitly stating that they work or are affiliated with SCC.

  22. Another Union Square neighbor says:


    They’re not building tenements. If anything, the new building will make that particular intersection at lot better looking. If you want to be against something, how about being against the decaying structure that’s there now? Or how about being against the eyesore that is the McGrath overpass, which has brought us nothing but pollution and blight? Or how about being against the ugly, code-word loaded opposition to this project?

    Anyway, I’m for the lower middle class getting a bone every now and then, and this development throws them one.

  23. Another Union Square neighbor says:


    The most valid concern I’ve heard raised about the project is the overall look. If Union Square is going to get a major makeover, this project is going to need to fit in with what springs up around it. Some sort of architectural review board for Union Square would make sense.

    Mind you, that probably argues for going five stories so that it’s not out of scale with larger future buildings.

    And that “etc.” in your list is glossing over some opponents who aren’t even bothering to hide their prejudices.

  24. unbelievable says:

    the arrogance here is unbelievable. if you disagree with SCC, you are ‘sleazy & extr. shortsighted’. No room for a different opinion? Wow. And then Elijah proclaims that sprawling lawns are ‘over’. not a good use of land. Again, WOW. He’s telling us what’s a good use of our land? I have a sprawling lawn, and Elijah can kiss it.

  25. TimT says:


    Thanks for the direct response. You’re right, you never claimed to live in Union Square and not living there certainly doesn’t discredit your views. My point was that I think you would be better informed if those “property owners” you so easily dismiss were your neighbors.

    From your LinkedIn: “I collaborate with other community leaders to identify and implement properties for development that benefit ALL the residents of Somerville.” It is clear that this development does NOT benefit all residents of Somerville, as evidenced by their opposition to specific things about it. The SCC (or anyone else) does not have the right to tell people what it is that benefits them, they have the ability to decide that for themselves.

    Would you still be in favor of the actual buildings being proposed and their impacts if this was all market rate housing? If some unknown developer came in proposing something that negatively impacted residents of the city? I think you, and may other supporters with good intentions, would be far more critical.

    Take a look at Trolley Square on Mass Ave in Cambridge – that’s an interesting 40 unit affordable housing development with courtyard green space above parking, retail space fronting public green space, and a mix of unit types.

    This development will be denser, but reducing it to four story’s would address community concerns about scale and allow the upper parking deck to no longer be necessary (with ~60 total units), removing the parking entrance on Boston Street and allowing the upper level to be turned into an amenity space for residents. The questionable “sunken plaza” at the corner could be reconfigured to be an active public space. Make these changes and I bet the vast majority will be in support of this project.

  26. disingenuous says:

    Matt, get used to it. Disingenuous is the name of the game for SCC and all developers who are out to make a buck and disappear. Pretending it’s all one project, and then pretending to be random neighborhood people when you really have a stake here. My suggestion to SCC and to Zoning board—someone has to put their name and a few bucks on these ‘projections’ of the wonderful things that will happen. I’ve sat at a few meetings and listened to outrageous benefits to my neighborhood as a result of one of these projects. When it doesn’t happen, nobody’s accountable. Put some money where your mouth is. Maybe the neighbors can at least have a party with your money when you fail.

  27. Elijah Plymesser says:

    @Matt Take a look at this link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=649664231712981&set=a.179265058752903.48572.170736416272434&type=1&theater

    This is a map the SCC used to plot the addresses of supporters (names are anonymous obviously) It looks like there is quite a bit of local support despite the very loud outcries of some neighbors.

    You are very correct in stating that not everyone is unified in their reasons for opposing the development. But your statement that there is no support for this project outside of the minions of the SCC is inaccurate.

    For the record, I agree with you that there should be a sliding scale for affordable housing relative to median incomes and home prices. Unfortunately those are rules that states and the federal gov’t makes though and are out of the SCC’s hands to the best of my knowledge. But I could be wrong. Yes, there are 2 distinct buildings-but they are all part of a unified project, designed by the same developer and architect-so I don’t believe it is disingenuous to talk about the project as a single endeavor. Thank you for you comments. The more the merrier!

  28. Larry says:

    Elijah, I disagree with just about everything you’ve written and believe in – trust me I can tell already which way you vote, but I do admire the total smugness and @sshatedness that you’ve demonstrated in your op-ed and posts. It’s a thing of beauty. Bravo! Bravo!

    I have to ask, are you a friend of Bill Shelton and the gang down at Mystic View Task Force? I bet you are and if not — you ought to be. Birds of a feather, dude, birds of a feather. Like Bill, you have no real qualifications in urban planning, strategic planning or anything useful, but obviously you woke up one day and exclaimed “I’m going to be a social engineer! I know what’s best for these ignorant masses.” You don’t and any clown can get a certificate from HAHHHH-VAAAHD. Just write the check.

    Folks, Elijah (SCC) is like the folks at MVTF and they are the new voices of Somerville. Not from here, don’t know anything about here, but GAWD-DAMN-IT-ALL the know it all and the mayor panders to them. Get used to it as debating with them is useless as they’re smarter than anyone else is. Just ask them.

  29. Union Square Neighbor says:

    SCC is true to form in treating this as a popularity contest while refusing to engage on substantive issues. The map of “supporters” is likely based on signatures gathered at one of the recent Farmers Markets in Union Square. What it doesn’t show is whether the signer knew or cared about what they were signing. By and large folks at the market just wanted to be allowed to could finish their shopping in peace, and signing was the fastest way to get a pushy young kid to leave them alone.

    SCC doesn’t report it on the form 990, but a big part of their activities consist of “community organizing” which is thinly disguised lobbying, instead of building affordable housing Tax-exempt 501(c)3 charities like SCC are supposed to severely limit lobbying, but SCC stands out among local CDCs for how much it spends on this.

    So Elijah, welcome to Somerville! For someone who’s been only a few months you’ve certainly jumped into the controversy with enthusiasm. If you decide to stay on for a few years,maybe you’ll be able to combine that with some real knowledge of this town.

  30. Greg says:

    @Elijah, Take a look at this link: https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=204477628557234251882.0004e0e24f350a2552e8d&msa=0&ll=42.381269,-71.09239&spn=0.005349,0.010804

    This is a map of all the residents who reside on and around Prospect Hill who oppose the development in it’s current form (5 stories). It looks like there is tremendous opposition against this project from the ACTUAL neighborhood.

    You can spin however you want, but the fact of the matter is there is way more opposition to this project than you’d ever admit…

  31. sam says:

    Based on the number of homes near the proposed project, your map of ‘supporters’ (doesn’t really tell me how you determined they supported you), hardly shows anything close to a majority. It is just a spattering.

  32. Elijah Plymesser says:

    @TimT: You raise a very good point. Personally, I would be amenable to a compromise on the height and some of the other features that you mentioned, but that is me personally and I in no way speak for the SCC or Cathartes. I would imagine that the ROI would be reduced significantly by cutting a quarter of the units though-and I’m not sure if the project would be able to contain such a high proportion of affordable units as such.
    Regarding my earlier question for you, do you believe that density can be capped @ 4 stories and Somerville will still succeed in realizing the goals of the SomerVision plan? I am asking sincerely and not being smug or disingenuous as I have been charged.

    @Larry: You are crazy. For the record I received a scholarship to do that program, and I am planning on applying to M.UP programs this or next fall, which I undoubtedly will have to write many checks to pay for-its how education works these days. In case you care to know about my background more, feel free to send me a direct message on Linked in or Facebook, which you clearly looked up. I do not need to explain my personal motivation on this comments board, but it is a story that I would be happy to tell. I am not an urban planner yet, but I hope to be one day. And I’m not an aspiring social engineer. Nor am I friend of Bill Shelton. If you would like to continue being accusatory why don’t you use your full name.

    @Union Square neighbor: Did you look at the form 990? Yes 501c3s do have to disclose lobbying-here is a link with some good info (and no they are not supposed to severely limit lobbying): http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/whitepaperdetail.cfm?ItemNumber=12202

    For better or worse lobbying is how most things do (or do not) get done in this country.

    Community Organizing is listed in sec. 3(4b) you can read the full description (and $ amount spent). You can compare it to other CDCs as well. And yes, hopefully I do continue to learn about Somerville, thank you for your comments.

  33. Matt says:

    @Another Union Square neighbor – I don’t think you can determine what is is a valid concern or not. My concern is the density, not of the site, but rather the density of low-income housing. I am pro density and would rather see a plan where over time we reduce the density restrictions on neighborhoods abutting transportation centers while keeping to the 40b-like affordable housing approach. Stylistically the building fits better in assembly sq or kendal sq rather than the more conservative/historical union sq.

    I still feel that there are two distinct projects that were grouped together as a marketing ploy to reduce the impact of building a housing project where 100% of the units are off market.

    Lastly I was not clear enough – there is negligible public support in the media outside of SCC employees or volunteers for this project where there has been very vocal letters, commenters etc against the project

  34. Richard says:

    Folks! What’s with the hostility? Let’s all take a chill pill and discuss with facts and logic rather than verbal abuse. At the end of the day you are all residents of Somerville and are most likely neighbors who will meet each other @ town hall meetings. Take a step back and chill.

  35. Elijah Plymesser says:

    @Greg Thank you for this map-I am glad that someone on this thread contributed some real, new information. As a rational thinking person, I have no choice but to reconcile myself with what that picture shows. I would imagine your next step is to pressure the city government as much as possible with that information. I have no issue admitting there is opposition here. Do you think that you could do a similar petition with what the neighborhood would find acceptable? I think if those opposed to the project could come to a consensus on what they DO want, that would be very effective in moving the process forward. (disclaimer: once again, I do not speak for the SCC)

  36. Still Another Union Square Neighbor says:

    I’m a Union Square (and long-time Somerville) resident, and I basically support this project. I don’t work for SCC, either.

    There is a dire need for more mixed housing in the city. And as another here commented, if the proposed structure was amended to four stories,
    would opponents accept that? If a five-story luxury condo complex was proposed by another developer, would neighbors be opposed to that?

    And finally, SCC spearheaded the Jobs For Somerville initiative last year, which crafted a local hiring ordinance, approved by the full Board of Aldermen. Surely, that must have been yet another greedy and dastardly attempt by the thieves at SCC to rip off the citizens of Somerville…right?

  37. Rob says:

    @Elijah: I appreciate that despite some of the school-yard reactions on here, you’ve shown a willingness and openness to reasonable modifications of the project. Although I agree that some of the early opposition to this project was ugly and based on prejudice, I think the current sentiments of most neighbors isn’t so much a wholesale rejection of the project, but rather a call for modest changes given the location, proximity, and impact of the project to adjacent homes. The fact that people are calling for a less dense project on this site isn’t a rejection higher density altogether. I actually think there are a lot of properties in the Union Square area for which this project or those with higher density would be appropriate.

    Unfortunately, we’ve seen very little flexibility or willingness to engage thus far from SCC representatives, who have actively shut down discussions of size, mass, and design of the buildings. Despite these public relations missteps (to put it charitably) in engaging and collaborating with neighbors, I believe they are sincere when they say they are working to maximize affordable housing units in Somerville rather than maximizing their own bottom line. Nevertheless, they’ve created a lot of mistrust in the community.

    While I am still opposed to this project, as proposed, I can only assume it will get approval Thursday night since it is on the Planning Board’s agenda. It’s a shame because I think just a few changes could make this an exceptional addition to Union Square.

  38. Joe Beckmann says:

    The maps are interesting – both of them. And they demonstrate several things at once. First, there has been “dialog” from and with many sides, with plenty of room and many positions – and that implies that there may be many ways to compromise, not just on height but on adjacent projects, properties, and uses. Second, less than ten addresses on the “anti-” list are really adjacent to the property – only six might have their views affected in any way – while most of the “opponents” are from one to three blocks away. Third, I’m also on one of those lists, and there seems to be very little interest when you get to my street (Stone Av). While interest continues to diminish with distance, there are positions both pro and con for six to ten blocks distant from the site itself. That suggests that there may be even more interest in projects like the Library (targeted for Ricky’s Flower Market) and the new theater (targeted for the current Post Office). I wonder why they haven’t turned out to talk about issues of parking, for just one example, which will be far more acute than parking on Washington Street.

    I am more concerned – as both homeowner and housing advocate – in how this project fits into a larger Union Square development plan, SomerVision, and the rest of the Green Line impact. As a former resident of Cambridge, driven out 15 years ago by the same kind of development we now face in Somerville (and, at that time, a tenant of the same developer who owns Trolley Square), I’m concerned that we deal with density and diversity more directly – and more successfully – than Cambridge did (and does).

    Regarding that new city in which we live and will live in the near future, this particular SCC is larger than many, but smaller than many to come. It is one floor taller than some neighbors want, but about five floors lower than what many neighbors will have to accommodate in ten to fifteen years. It has a slightly higher ratio of affordable units, but is as far from a “tenement” as we are from Bangladesh! “Affordable” rents target middle income tenants, and, at $1200 to $1600/month are hardly cheap or even low income. That argument, at least, seems to be less intense than it was a few months ago!

    Elijah’s case about density and the history of heights merits more careful and broader review. Assuredly, the funeral home is not as tall as it’s proposed successor, but the view of parking lots will be a lot less ugly than the Boys and Girls Club’s lot has been. The former heights of Union Square may largely reflect a few blocks distance from this site, but a new Washington Street subway station in the other direction will most definitely justify more intensive development, but here and along a renewed McGrath.

    In any case, it’s good to see some edges of common ground begin to emerge in this debate – and Elijah seems to have provoked what might yet become a “middle.” Congratulations.

  39. TimT says:

    Elijah: Why can you not speak for the SCC? Aren’t you a member of their land use committee? Maybe it’s time some of those inside the SCC stop blindly following their leadership and question whether this is really the best possible proposal.

    By best, I don’t mean maximum number of units or maximum financial return for the SCC, but best for the existing community and those new residents who will live here.

    All those dots on the google map are people who have signed a petition asking for the specific changes I outlined.

    Regarding your question – I don’t think density can or should be capped at four stories – there are many sites where taller buildings are appropriate. Union Square Neighbor outlined that well. But on this site, a four story building would CLEARLY be better for everyone than the five story buildings proposed.

    There are supporters of the SCC that have questioned this proposal not because they oppose affordable housing, but because they care enough about it to want to get it right. Tomorrow, when you go to the planning board meeting, why don’t you stand up and say that you support this development but think it can be improved and should be changed?

  40. suzie says:

    Why is the past density of Union Square relevant to this discussion? Perhaps the change was because the city wanted to create more of a community/neighborhood, than a wasteland of high-rises, aka the Bronx, etc. Nothing kills a neighborhood more than high-rises in place of family homes. Yet we have a mayor doing everything in his power to create these wastelands, while on the other hand bemoaning the lack of families in the city, and spending our tax dollars to try to create community. “Oh, what a world, what a world.”

  41. Union Square Neighbor says:

    @Elijah, you’re correct that with an annual budget last year of about $2,600,000, SCC is allowed to spend up to about $440,000 on lobbying. Since most of their ~20 employees are (I assume) modestly paid “organizers”, I suppose it’s possible they stay within those limits. But a fair chunk of Danny LeBlanc’s time goes to organizing, and all of Meredith Levy’s: given their higher salaries, $440K may be low.
    It’s odd that so few of SCC’s staff actually work on building housing. One person who used to do that, Jeremy Willkening is now gone – do you know why?
    Imagine if that $440K was used directly for housing: it would pay the rent of 20 Somerville families.

  42. Joe Beckmann says:

    Perhaps, Suzie, you’ve never been to Cambridge, where hi-rise buildings actually enhance the value of homes, nor to Manhattan, where, on the East Side, those homes have become the most expensive in the world. Stop pretending this is a Bronx development! Rents, at affordable levels, are hardly what they are in the Bronx, and almost half of the planned apartments will cost more than your house!

    You bought in the CITY of Somerville, and you might respect the urbanity of your community. It’s now all – in fact it’s very rarely – single family homes, and, for that matter, only 7 residents (whether owners or not) who signed your petition will or could, or might, be affected by the size of the proposed project.

    I have argued in the past with SCC, and even bankrupted a CDC once in Cambridge, but this plan is so tame your paranoia is palpable. Who’s paying you? This kind of intensity usually masks an intense financial self-interest, and it can’t be your housing values, which will improve with more development, so it must be somebody else’s.

  43. Biff Jones says:

    I was generally in favor of this project – assuming they could revise the design a bit so that immediate neighbors got a little less screwed – until they doubled the size by proposing to tear down the historic Cota funeral home building next door.

    These “mansions with sprawling lawns” that Elijah seems so comfortable deriding are in fact exceedingly rare in Somerville. Frankly, Elijah’s eagerness to rip the remaining few down to fulfill a lofty planning goal of increasing even more the geographic area we get to lay claim to conquering, density-wise, indicates a one-dimensional view of how to truly plan for the health of a city. Things like history, diversity of building type, and open space matter and contribute more to the residents as a whole than simply upping the benchmark from which we measure our future need for more density. Furthermore, the resulting mega-block is rather unremarkable in design – more appropriate in an office park off route 128. Blowing away the scale of a neighborhood with something lacking in any sort of urban character is no way to create a “gateway to Union square”.

    Speaking to the SomerVision plan Elijah references – it should be pointed out that the goals of creating 6,000 new housing units and 125 acres of greenspace are mutually exclusive, practically speaking. There’s money to be made in density and money to be lost in greenspace. Guess which one wins out? For your answer look at this project (gain 1% toward housing goal, lose 1/3% away from greenspace goal. For reference, 6,000 housing units would be like adding 2,000 triple-deckers around Somerville (or stacked in big chunks here & there). Creating 125 acres of greenspace is equal to the footprint of about 4,500 average houses. Who wants to be 1st?

    One other point – there’s an undue amount of hype in this city around “transit oriented development”. This goal is more relevant in cities that are more spread out / less dense as a way to cluster growth around relatively few transit nodes & contain sprawl. Here in Somerville most of the city is in effect a transit node. Does anyone really think the occupants of this building will stop taking the T if they have to walk 10 minutes to get there? Minimal mass transit payback for the cost of screwing a neighborhood.

    A final note, Elijah – it’s not helping make your case to dismiss the concerns of a neighborhood about its built environment as selfish intransigence. Neither is using “meters” instead of “yards” – seriously.

  44. much larger issue says:

    i’d love to hear about the much larger issue of what’s under the ground in this whole area before we densely overbuild. Check the cancer rates in that ‘neighborhood’. Soil Samples from Allen St. got bad news. A sinkhole recently ate a trash truck because ‘a river runs through it’. and we’re gonna build this monster building, a library, and who knows what else? Get your bathing suits ready

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