181/197 Washington Street Development at a Crossroads
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Over the past few years, the development proposed by the Somerville Community Corporation on the site of the Boys and Girls Club (181 Washington Street) and by Cathartes Private Investments on the adjacent Cota Funeral Home (197 Washington Street) has been extremely controversial. There are people from all over Somerville support the fact that this project contains a lot of income restricted affordable housing. But few favor anything else about it. Many who live near these building are also in favor of affordable housing, but almost all of them have been against the actual physical buildings being proposed.
Many object to replacing one of the largest green spaces in Union Square with two five story buildings and a parking garage that have no usable green space. Other concerns include requiring traffic to drive through the quiet residential streets of Prospect Hill to get to a poorly considered parking entrance on Boston Street, parking problems created by this entrance, and the obstruction of the panoramic view from surrounding streets on the hill which helps create the unique character of this part of prospect hill. The proposed buildings fail to provide adequate retail space and resident bicycle parking, and locate open mechanical areas on residential streets. No commitment to at least some local retail has been given. The grand idea behind this project is that it is a “mixed income” development, but there is no common space provided that would encourage any mixing between residents of the market rate building and the income restricted building. The developers have agreed to work with the City to improve the pedestrian environment on Washington Street by reconfiguring the sidewalk, which is great – but the rest of these issues also need to be addressed.
The Somerville Planning Board is currently considering whether this project meets the goals and aspirations of the Union Square Zoning Ordinance and Somervision Plan and should be permitted to be built as proposed. At a meeting of the Planning Board last Thursday attended by anxious neighbors, many were relieved to hear the Board ask the developers to modify their proposal to respond the concerns raised by hundreds of community members who live around the proposed development.
This Thursday July 18th, the developers will present a modified proposal and the Planning Board will vote on whether it should be permitted. This development is now a crossroads. Will Cathartes and the Somerville Community Corporation continue to insist on maximizing the size of the project at the expense of the surrounding community or will they come forward with a proposal that brings the neighborhood together in a project just about everyone can support? Hopefully the developers will agree to compromise, but in the absence of this the Planning Board should require the developers to withdraw and resubmit a project that addresses these issues.
Over 150 community members living on the streets immediately surrounding this site have signed a petition identifying this clear set of problems with what has been proposed and a clear set of solutions that could improve the project. Despite years of controversy over this project, there is a clear compromise that almost everyone can agree with. Reducing the buildings from 5 to 4 stories each, removing the poorly considered Boston Street parking entrance, and replacing the green space that currently exists on the site with at least as much new, usable green space would address many of the concerns that have been raised.
Four story buildings will reduce the impact on views, preserving the character of this part of prospect hill for everyone. It will reduce the total unit count from 84 to around 60-65, eliminating the need for the upper parking level and the Boston Street entrance which will help keep traffic off of quiet residential streets and reduce any parking issues. What is now the upper parking level could become usable outdoor green space shared by residents on both sides, a critical part of a project intended for working families. The height of the retail space can be increased, making it attractive to a broader range of stores. The open areaway along Boston Street will no longer be necessary.
The idea of this project promoted by the developers sounds attractive, but neighbors will not spend the years to come living next to an idea, they will have to live with the actual buildings that are built. Future residents will not care about the ideas used to sell the project, they will care about the quality of the actual place they live in. Those who have expressed these concerns about the project are not against new development or “affordable housing”, but are simply requesting that the developers modify the project to improve the buildings for those who live here now and their future residents. Addressing these concerns and creating the best possible project should be a goal that can be shared by everyone. Making these changes should be something we can all agree on.
Tim and Shu Talun
Sam Millen & Kristen Zecchi
Dhondup Phunkhang & Lhadon Tethong