Planning Board pushes back on Union Square project

On July 17, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Members ask for compromise; vote expected Thursday


Opponents of a planned development on Washington Street rallied outside last week’s Planning Board meeting.
– Photo by Elizabeth Sheeran

By Elizabeth Sheeran

Developers of a Union Square housing and retail project have until tomorrow to convince Somerville Planning Board members they have a plan the neighborhood can live with.

Over a hundred residents filled the Planning Board meeting at the Argenziano school last Thursday to hear the fate of a controversial two-building, five-story project that will put 39 market-rate and 45 affordable housing units on Washington Street just west of McGrath Highway, under a joint proposal from the local non-profit Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) and developer Cathartes Private Investments.

But the board declined to make any kind of decision on the case at last week’s meeting, and Planning Board Chair Kevin Prior criticized an SCC press release that had announced the board would vote that night. “The chairman of the Planning Board sets the date the vote will be taken,” said Prior. “The SCC does not set the dates the Planning Board will vote.”

In fact, the delay turned out to be good news for the SCC and its supporters, since it soon became clear the proposal lacked the four votes it would need to pass.

The project has generated strong opinions on both sides since the SCC first announced in 2012 that it planned to construct a five-story building on the site of the former Boys and Girls Club at 181 Washington Street, with retail and commercial space at street level, and a mix of low-income and workforce housing above. Earlier this year, the SCC joined forces with Cathartes, which is redeveloping the Cota funeral home site next door at 197 Washington Street.

Proponents say the proposal is the best possible option for the location and locks in affordable housing for the neighborhood ahead of the Green Line reaching Union Square. They note that the project is well within the site’s CCD-55 zoning designation, which is intended to encourage denser development, up to five stories, along central arteries near transit hubs. The city planning department has recommended approval with some conditions, such as no satellite dishes on the rooftops.

Opponents say the size and height of the project is out-of-scale for that particular site, at the base of the slope of the established Prospect Hill residential neighborhood. They say the proposal lacks enough green space for the number of new residents who will live there, and will aggravate existing parking and traffic problems. And many opponents, including immediate abutters, have said the developers have shown an unwillingness to compromise on any significant aspects of the project design.

The case was closed to public comment in advance of last Thursday’s meeting, but dozens of residents spoke at an earlier public hearing on June 20, and Planning Board members said they had read close to 100 pieces of written testimony.

Board member Michael Capuano said he supports development that creates more affordable housing. But he had visited the site and wouldn’t vote for the current plan because of the impact its size will have on abutters, even though it meets zoning guidelines, “Our job is to assess the project and how it sits on that location and impacts that neighborhood,” said Capuano. “Nothing ever says you have to look at it in a bubble.”

He said it appeared most neighbors who oppose the project would be “reasonably satisfied” if the height of the buildings were reduced to four stories, which would also reduce the traffic and parking impact, and he asked the developers if that was possible.

Cathartes co-founder Jim Goldenberg said the project would not be financially viable at four stories, because knocking off a floor cuts out one quarter of the revenues from the residential units without cutting out a quarter of the costs, and lowers the return on investment to a point where the building can’t get financing.

Said Capuano, “I want to support this project. But it’s very, very hard for me to get to ‘yes’ unless you make some dramatic changes to what is I think a flawed project.”

Board member James Kirylo said he wouldn’t vote for the plan because “it would do nothing for this neighborhood.” He echoed comments by Capuano about the project’s size, lack of green space and traffic impact. “We’re never going to be able to get a car through Union Square at rush hour,” said Kirylo, who also said the two sunken patios meant to serve as open space for the development would likely become “nothing more than outdoor smoking pits.”

Member Gerard Amaral also voiced concern about insufficient green space and parking, as well as the building’s height.

Elizabeth Moroney was among three planning board members who said they would vote in favor of the proposal, citing her “commitment to affordable housing in this city.” Moroney recalled that when the Zoning Board of Appeals declined an affordable housing project on Highland Avenue in 2010, the site was ultimately converted to market rate condominiums. She said insufficient affordable housing options could leave Somerville open to the state’s mandating low-income housing under its Chapter 40b statute, without the same kind of local review.

But Moroney said she would like to see more done by the developers to make the project “more palatable to the direct abutters.”

Board member Joseph Favaloro also said he was “not thrilled” about how the buildings would impact abutters, and asked the developers to do “a little more rolling up of the sleeves” and “be a bit more creative” to find solutions that would respond to some of the legitimate concerns voiced by neighbors.

Still, Favaloro said he would vote for the project because the developers had built a proposal in line with all of the guidelines spelled out for Somerville’s plan for long-term development, which concentrates the taller, denser buildings along the main streets in neighborhoods like Union Square. “It meets the criteria set forward by all the different visioning entities in this city,” said Favoloro.

Planning Board Chair Kevin Prior said he was also in favor of the project, but said the developer had to do more to get the support it needed to get the project approved. He said the board would vote on the project on Thursday, July 18, giving the developers one more week to make any changes in the proposal that might make it more acceptable to neighbors and Planning Board members who currently oppose the plan.

“Let me remind you tonight, you do not have four votes. It’s your job to come up with the votes,” said Prior to SCC and Cathartes representatives at the meeting. “I’m in favor of getting four votes. But that’s not going to happen unless the development team gets off the dime and starts compromising on this project.”



14 Responses to “Planning Board pushes back on Union Square project”

  1. JMB says:

    So what we have is:

    Kirylo: I’m not going to vote for this project, period.

    Capuano: I want to vote for this project, but the developer actually has to compromise with the neighborhood.

    Moroney: I love affordable housing, and even though the neighbors hate it, I’ll vote for it because affordable.

    Favaloro: I love the “visioning process” and even though the neighbors hate it, I’ll vote for it because visioning.

    Amaral: Not enough green space.

    Prior: I’ll vote for it but you don’t have the votes to actually get approved.

    Of these people, only Capuano and Prior actually seem to be pushing towards compromise. If the Mayor actually thought this way, we’d be in way better shape. Shocking, a Capuano is the best one of this bunch. Both he and his brother ought to be in office, both good kids with good heads.

  2. Charlie says:

    There was a community process to develop the new zoning for Union Square. This development fits within that zoning. Are there design elements that could be changed/improved? Perhaps. But the density is something that everyone came to agreement about already. If people are concerned about traffic issues they should demand the developer to minimize the amount of on-site parking that is built. If you build more, parking, you’ll definitely get more traffic. To demand that no new development be built unless it doesn’t add traffic is completely unreasonable. Union Square is the perfect place for Somerville to grow, and with the Green Line and streetscape improvements coming that will make walking, bicycling, and transit even more appealing than they are today, it’s the perfect place to provide new housing that minimizes the additional traffic that it will generate.

  3. sam says:

    Charlie, we have all figured out long ago that the ‘community process’ is nothing but a dog and pony show, with the community having no effect whatsoever on the final outcome. And please, enough with the tired argument that if you do not build parking people will not bring their cars. That is so bogus. They simply bring their cars and park on the street, further bogging down our neighborhoods.

  4. Charlie says:

    sam, I’m sorry you are so cynical about community process. I think Somerville is actually quite responsive to citizens and generally tries to find solutions that are equitable and fair. It’s impossible to make everyone happy, but it seems to me that the City is trying a lot harder than many to engage people and make informed decisions. Just because they may not be doing exactly what you want does not mean they are unresponsive.

    As long as a parking permit is $30 a year, some new residents will park on the street even when they have (more expensive) off-street parking options available to them. So the idea that building plentiful off-street parking to prevent people from parking on the street doesn’t quite work either.

    I really do not like the parochial attitude of many citizens. There is a very pervasive view of “I got mine, the heck with everyone else”. Anything that has the potential to inconvenience people, if just a little bit, even if it benefits the city as a whole, is often shot down by existing residents. It’s very frustrating and selfish as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Somerbreeze says:

    @ Charlie – Is City Hall so responsive to concerned residents about the
    Beacon Street project?

    Looks like yet another a “done deal” to me, with more than a hint of favoritism for “developers-we-love,” etc…

    Oops, sorry…that’s “community process”….

  6. TimT says:

    Charlie, I think Sam is referring to the public process run by the developers of this project, not general city run community design workshops such as Somerville by Design. The public input process run by the SCC for this specific project must be among the worst ever, and many are disillusioned because of it.

    Note that neighboring residents are not asking for single family homes to be built here, rather 60-65 units instead of 84 (four stories instead of five). The “design elements” cannot be addressed without also addressing the overall density of the project.

    This development is providing less than one parking spot per unit, probably the least of any modern development in Somerville. Some of the complaints about parking have to do with the configuration of the parking, which makes it more convenient to park on street than in off street parking.

    I’d take a closer look at the issues surrounding this project before you start spouting off calling existing residents selfish. I would say it is far more selfish to call for people to sacrifice that which they care about in service of some abstract “good” defined by someone else. This is not a public works project, it is private development. New private development should benefit all residents, new and old.

  7. Sue says:

    Charlie, Sam is not cynical, but realistic. After attending numerous city meetings, it is clear that the plan has been decided ahead of time, and the meeting facilitators steer the meeting toward that conclusion. I was at a Planning Board meeting where a memeber of the board stated that their job was ‘to make the neighborhood comfortable with the plan’. That says it all. And I’m sorry if people don’t like to be inconvenienced because people with a lot of money want a huge building to take over their city. We are experiencing the ‘Manhattanization’ of Somerville. The neighborhoods are being destroyed, and that is what made Somerville great. Long-time residents are being pushed out by the costs, and by the changes that are not beneficial to the city. Who is the selfish one, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Charlie says:

    Last time I was in Manhattan, the buildings were a lot taller than 5 stories. I just need to understand what is it about 4 stories that so much better than 5, particularly since the zoning is for 5. I thought maybe people were upset that it would block their views, but I’ve seen renderings, and because it’s at the bottom of a hill, views are not really blocked much at all. I’m all in favor of making suggestions about design or layout to make it a better project. What annoys me is when people just have a gut reaction of “too tall” or “it will create too much traffic”. I see the same thing in Boston. A developer proposes a 30 story building and people say “too tall” so they cut it back to 25 stories. Really? 5 stories makes a huge difference? When you are standing on the street, you can’t even tell how tall it is unless you look up and count the floors.

    And regarding the Beacon Street project, yes the city has been responsive. They have reduced the amount of parking that is being removed and are planning to make off-street spaces available for on-street permit holders. There is nowhere else in the city where that has been done! They are also adding crosswalks where citizens have suggested them and are tweaking the cycle track design at intersections based on citizen feedback. And they are putting in cycle tracks in the first place because citizens have asked for them. No one is getting 100% of what they want, but everyone’s feedback is certainly being taken into account.

  9. Factual says:

    You must work for the SCC and live in Arlington where this will not effect you.

  10. sue says:

    Charlie, my problem is only partly with height, it is also with lack of setback and green space (not just this development but city-wide). It begins to look like the concrete jungle, and not a home. Those places are not friendly, welcoming, pretty places, as opposed to waking in a neighborhood, with porches, a little yard, some flowers.

    And by the way, when the city ‘revised’ a plan due to neighborhood pressure, it is usually ‘re-revised’ down the line to accomodate what the developer/city wanted in the first place. The devloper comes back and says they can’t make money/sell/rent the space without a, b, or c, so it is given to them. Happens every time, you just haven’t been around long enough to notice it.

  11. MarketMan says:

    JMB says “Shocking, a Capuano is the best one of this bunch. Both he and his brother ought to be in office, both good kids with good heads.”

    If he is a good kid with a good head, why is it shocking that he is the best one of the bunch?

  12. MarketMan says:

    sam: I agree about community process being a dog and pony show. I used to go to most of them, and still go to some (for information reasons), but it’s clear what is going on.

  13. MarketMan says:

    Charlie: The parochial attitude that you speak of might sometimes be a misinterpretation of people being displeased with the entitlement attitude. Many are bending over backwards trying to make things accessible to “everyone”, when they really only care about making it affordable to themselves or making money off the process. I know this isn’t true of everyone, but it is true of many.

  14. MarketMan says:

    sue: I agree with you, but there are nice neighborhoods that don’t necessarily have those things. You can have an aesthetically pleasing concrete jungle :-) …SCC isn’t proposing that btw.

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