Tag Archives: zoning

Proposed Zoning Not Right Direction for Union Square Development

The City of Somerville’s Planning Board and Board of Aldermen are reviewing a proposal that would rezone two areas on the edge of Union Square.  On Somerville Avenue between Church and Carlton, that is, the block that includes Market Basket, would be changed from current Business (BA and IA) only designation and along the west side of McGrath Highway from Washington Street to Greenville would be rezoned from Business (BB) to CCD-55, the same zoning as the central commercial area of Union Square proper.

The staff in the City of Somerville’s Planning Department prepared a report and are recommending approval of the proposal.  Their report has good detail on the specifics of the change and is worth a close review. 

Union Square Main Streets believes the proposed amendments to re-zone the parcels along McGrath Highway from Greenville to Washington Street and on Somerville Avenue between Church and Dane Streets is inappropriate for these particular parcels and serves to undermine the business district of Union Square.

Somerville’s CCD-55 zoning designation was intended to incentivize in-fill development, particularly in the tightly woven commercial areas of Union Square where inappropriate business uses, open parking lots, and set-back residences have created “missing teeth” in the fabric of the district. These “missing teeth” stall pedestrian activity in the area, weakening the links in activity between individual businesses and undermining the viability of the Square as a whole.  Requirements in the ordinance – non-residential first floor uses, a significant increase in FAR, design that maintains a continuous street wall – answer to the needs of a shopping district with mixed use development in keeping with the historic fabric of the area.

The areas proposed by this amendment are not appropriate additions to the Union Square CCD-55 district.

Loss of commercial properties:  Somerville has a small commercial tax base. The long-term viability of Somerville as a community where one can live, work, play and raise a family requires that areas for businesses be protected.  Moving these parcels from their current designation of Business A, Business B and Industrial to CCD-55 which allows for residential on all but the first floor, means that we’ve lost, for generations, space for essential commercial development.

Weakening of Fledging Market in Union Square and Undermining of Pedestrian Activity: We anticipate that commercial spaces in any mixed-use properties in these locations will be difficult to lease.  Away from the high-traffic areas it won’t be attractive to retailers and as a mixed property it is less attractive for office uses.  By way of comparison, consider the challenge in Davis Square to lease the property at the corner of Meachem and Dover Streets behind the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square where Candlewick Press is today. As we’ve seen in the recently approved 70 Prospect Street project, designs with more than half of the ground floor for screened parking have been allowed in Somerville’s CCD-55. None of these scenarios serve to foster an active pedestrian environment and Somerville’s goals for economic development.

Depth of Parcels on Somerville Avenue Inappropriate for CCD-55: CCD-55 parcels are generally shallow, following along key roads and sidewalks.   The properties on Somerville Avenue being consideration for designation are three to four times the depth of the rest of  the other CCD areas. If there is a thought to rezone the area a better designation would be a Planned Unit Development (PUD).

Historic Preservation of American Tube Works, Homes on McGrath: Within each of the areas there are structures of significant historic value including the site of the former American Tube Works on Somerville Avenue and several fine homes on McGrath Highway.  None of these structures are currently protected through Local Historic District designation but Somerville should serve to avoid the demolition of these properties, particularly the American Tube Works structures.

CCD-55 zoning is attractive to developers because it allows for a more profitable project with a significant increase in density and lower parking requirements.   The bonuses should serve to transform the district’s missing teeth, not used for development that doesn’t serve community interests.


A Look at Gentrification

By Alex Reisman with contributions from Mimi Graney

I’m always finding more (usually food related) reasons to visit Union Square —bars, coffee shops, pop-up markets. It’s increasingly a destination to shop, dine, and drink, as well as an increasingly desirable place to live. Union Square is “up and coming,” revitalizing, or, in more provocative terms, gentrifying.

The transformation of Union Square has generally been a welcome change throughout the community, though not without some of the usual frictions of gentrifying places. Debates over the zoning that allows for greater heights and density, a proposal for new retail and housing at 380 Somerville Avenue, and, most recently, the plan to demolish the former Boys and Girls Club for an affordable housing development bring up different visions of Union Square’s present and future. Change in Union Square is inevitable. As we work together in building our neighborhood, it’s helpful to consider how each of us are affected, and how we might be able to embrace opportunities for positive impacts while limiting negative consequences.

Looking at it in the simplest terms, there are two major groups involved in gentrification processes: a neighborhood’s long-time residents (usually poor or working class) and the newcomers (“the gentry”)—old-timers versus yuppies, as the stereotypes have it. These stereotypes may not come from thin air, but they overlook much about the day-to-day reality of neighborhoods in transition, especially the ethnically and economically mixed communities of Somerville which have seen several waves of change over the past thirty years. The unsurprising and more generous truth is that both “sides” of the “us and them” equation are diverse and therefore embody a great range of perspectives and motivations.

First let’s consider the gentry—the folks moving into the neighborhood who tend to be “highly educated and residentially mobile.” While this group is sometimes popularly portrayed as a homogenous group of self-satisfied “urban pioneers” actively seeking to transform a neighborhood, sociologist Japonica Brown-Saracino’s research on gentrifiers says otherwise.

The “urban pioneer” type is out there, to be sure, but Brown-Saracino found that most gentrifiers recognize their complicity in a neighborhood’s transformation and often feel conflicted about it. Many specifically do not want to be associated with that image or mentality—they want to live in a neighborhood without necessarily altering it or disrupting it, and they seek to join the community already present. Yet, this group’s consumer choices drive a broader shift, a change they are not consciously making or comfortable acknowledging.

On the other side of the gentrification equation are a neighborhood’s long-time residents. Like the gentry, they are both a diverse group with myriad outlooks and are often conflicted about the changes they witness in their neighborhood. That is certainly what researcher Lance Freeman found in his conversations with poor residents in gentrifying New York City neighborhoods.

Many of his conversations, in fact, revealed surprisingly positive views of gentrification among long-time residents. They valued the new amenities, conveniences, and choices, as well as improved safety, even when they didn’t feel that the changes were “for them.” Even what would seem only to be trappings of the gentry, like a sushi restaurant, were appreciated and used by at least some indigenous residents. (Freeman’s observations also help debunk another myth, which is that lower income residents do not contribute to economic development. In fact, the collective spending power of low-income communities is significant.) Thus, while they are often made out to be little more than victims of gentrification, long-time residents are also beneficiaries.

Of course, they aren’t benefitting if they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. Hence, displacement—when residents are priced out of a previously affordable area—is widely seen as the greatest evil of gentrification. (Displacement also happens to small businesses, which is another important dimension of gentrification beyond the scope of this particular post.) It’s no surprise that fears of displacement were the main source of anti-gentrification sentiments among Freeman’s interviewees. Interestingly though, when Freeman specifically investigated the displacement threat, he was unable to find a causal link between gentrification and displacement.

In fact, he and his colleague found that poor residents without a college degree “were actually less likely to move if they resided in gentrifying neighborhoods.” I don’t want to make too much of that finding, but I mention it only to suggest that the displacement equation is not so clear-cut. Factors such as new housing stock, homeownership, and affordable housing programs help make it possible for outsiders to move in without necessarily threatening to dislocate others.

But that doesn’t defeat the common-sense view that rising rents will inevitably strain or push out some residents, such as those who don’t own homes or who aren’t already participating in affordable housing programs. And new housing stock means that more people can be accommodated in one place, but it doesn’t guarantee that supply will keep up with demand or that rents will stay affordable. Anyway, even if the actual threat of displacement is not that significant, the perception of the threat is still a problem. It’s hard to be neighborly to newcomers and build a cooperative, cohesive community if there’s an underlying fear that one might not be able to stay there. Hence, the importance of preserving affordability—ideally through multiple tactics. Preserving affordability helps to keep current residents in their homes, it diminishes the fear of displacement among long-time residents, and it allows non-affluent newcomers to still move into the neighborhood.

In my reading, I discovered another, lesser-known consequence of gentrification that I think is also worth taking into account: the feeling among long-time residents that they are losing control of public space. Instead of experiencing the neighborhood’s public space as they always have, they are seeing a different culture take hold, and it feels foreign and isolating. This is a form of displacement too, and unfortunately one that might be even harder to treat.

But that’s not to stop me, for one, from wanting or advocating for investments which I believe will benefit the overall health of Union Square—things like building restoration, a new transit station, thriving businesses, and farmers’ markets. The challenge is engaging the whole community in these changes so that they are widely loved and accepted.

Changes that proceed incrementally allow residents new and old to weigh in and time to adjust.   So far in Union Square a mix of public and private investment has driven slow, relatively modest, piecemeal transformation and this small-scale “in-fill” development is expected to continue. On the horizon, however, larger projects are coming into view.  As public will, confidence and capacity is growing we’re  preparing to take on the area’s long-standing, intractable challenges such as brownfields, traffic congestion, and limited public transit, as well as infrastructure problems like sewer systems, roadway design, and limited usable open space.

At Union Square Main Streets, we feel that such efforts can and will benefit the entire community and will hasten the revitalization of Union Square. Such significant public investment and change becomes an opportunity for residents to assess what works and what doesn’t work so well, and to guide that investment accordingly. It’s a chance to both protect favorite places and features, but also to think constructively about what should change (“visioning”). The street doesn’t have to be choked with traffic, the sidewalk doesn’t have to be a narrow deathtrap, that eyesore of an overpass doesn’t have to be there. Such things can change, and improvement needn’t spell displacement—cultural or  physical.

Dialogue among planners, developers, city decision-makers and the various stakeholder groups affected by neighborhood change need to know what makes the neighborhood feel like home and what aspects matter most. That way, new investment can preserve important community institutions and build on neighborhood assets, rather than blindly altering them. Continuing to build on the structures of public engagement is essential as we together move forward into tomorrow.


Books cited in this post:

The Neighborhood That Never Changes, by Japonica Brown-Saracino

There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, by Lance Freeman

Community Meeting on 181 Washington Street

The Somerville Community Corporation is planning to purchase the former site of the Somerville Boys and Girls Club at 181 Washington Street. Their hope is to demolish the current structure and create 40+ units of affordable rental housing with commercial units on the first floor. This would be the second  proposal to come forward in the neighborhood making use of the new zoning code focused on denser, transit oriented development.

SCC is hosting a second community meeting on Monday, November 7 at 7 pm at 181 Washington Street to hear neighborhood feedback on the plan and to discuss their planning to date.

SCC reports that these rental units will target low to moderate income families, with income limits of up to $57,780 a year for a family of four.


USMS Board of Director Submits Letter Supporting 380 Somerville Ave Redevelopment

Open Letter Submitted by the Union Square Main Streets Board of Directors.  Sent to the Somerville Planning Board and as an op-ed to the Somerville Journal.

The first development project to make use of new zoning for Union Square is now before Somerville’s Planning Board. Proposed for four adjoining properties on Somerville Avenue that make-up a block of street frontage between Church and Carlton Streets are 30 new residential units and 6,500 square feet of retail space.

The Union Square zoning, passed two years ago and developed through a multi-year process with extensive community involvement, seeks, among its goals, to improve the pedestrian experience of Union Square, restore the neighborhood’s historic architecture, enable in-fill development, and encourage the creation of quality commercial and residential spaces. The zoning sets forward specific design requirements for elements such as structured parking and open space as well as requirements for affordable housing.

The proposed redevelopment 380 Somerville Avenue meets the community’s goals for Union Square and is worthy of public support.

James Herbert owns the four properties under consideration: the locally designated as historic property of 380 Somerville Avenue which now contains Well Foods Plus on the first floor with apartments on the upper floors, two houses and a small parking lot between the buildings. Jim is a long-time Somerville resident and business owner. Many people may know Londontown Antiques that he ran for many years where WellFoods is now. It is anticipated that Mr. Herbert will bring the project through the planning and permitting phases and will then sell the bundled properties to a developer who can see the project through final construction.

The redevelopment roughly doubles the number of available residential units and triples the available retail square footage. The plan proposes first floor retail to extend along the length of Somerville Ave, creating a more active street presence with small scale spaces appropriate for independently owned businesses. It fills in the “missing teeth” feeling created by the surface parking lot and draws pedestrians along an active, commercial Somerville Avenue. The upper stories would be residential with structured parking accessible from the side streets. The number of off-street parking is increased.

The redevelopment preserves the historic façade of 380 Somerville Avenue. Also known as the Bennett Block, the property was likely inspired by Aaron Gould, the architect of two other mixed use commercial-residential properties in Union Square. In the proposal, this façade will be maintained to stand opposite the Drouet building on the other side of Somerville Avenue, serving as a distinctive gateway into Union Square.

The design is a thoughtful one that pays attention to the surrounding neighborhood. The design is by Jeff Meese, an architect with a specialty in historic preservation and a close knowledge of Somerville. Jeff is working with Janis Mamayek of ICON architecture, another firm well familiar with reuse of older buildings. ICON’s project include the rubber factory that became the Brookside Artist Lofts in Jamaica Plain, Hotel Dartmouth in Roxbury’s Dudley Square and North Grosvenordale which transformed a 150 year old mill village into over 100 units of affordable housing.

The redevelopment does mean that the interior of 380 Somerville Ave and two other residential structures are demolished to make way for a new structure. While concerns about displacement of the current renters are appropriate, there is significant time to find new homes for the residents and a new retail location for WellFoods in Union Square.

Ensuring that Union Square has a mix of housing options is essential to the neighborhood’s future. As Union Square continues to increase in stature as a great place to live, and particularly when the Greenline station opens, market demand on the limited residential options is going to intensify. The new development doubles the amount of housing on those parcels, a notable step to increasing the available places to live in Somerville.

Currently these properties on Somerville Avenue offer low rents because the quality of the buildings themselves is low. As we’ve seen all over the city, if sold separately, these multi-family homes are typically renovated into condos and sold at a price out of reach for many low and moderate income Somervillians. The proposed redevelopment is of a scale that four apartments will be made permanently affordable for Union Square’s residents. These places will be clean, safe, and well-maintained places to live.

Redevelopment of this property generates new tax revenues and helps the City maintain needed services like schools, libraries, and the protection of police and fire. While Union Square is nearly equal in land area to Davis Square, this neighborhood generates just 54% of the assessed value. The three structures in question range in assessed value from $164 a square foot to a meager $80 a square foot. By way of comparison, Redfin is showing this month that average price per square foot for Somerville properties is $332 a square foot.

Change is coming to Union Square and the new zoning ordinance was carefully constructed so that as this change comes the community as a whole benefits. If Somerville is to meet the challenges of the coming century for new housing, more jobs, good schools and healthy neighborhoods we’ve got to welcome those willing and able to invest in Union Square and to work positively together. How our community responds to this sound redevelopment proposal demonstrates to other potential investors our willingness embrace change and our ability to solve challenges together.

The long term benefits of this redevelopment are substantial for Union Square and for Somerville and the proposal is deserving of community support.


The Union Square Main Streets Board of Directors



Protest at City Hall on Redevelopment Plans for Union Square

Somerville Community Corporation organized a protest at City Hall on April 7, 2011 seeking to stop the proposed redevelopment of a block of properties on Somerville Avenue.  Post Somerville has an article and videos on their site. And Somerville Patch also has an article.

You can read a blog post from USMS on the proposed project with details about the redevelopment here.

Put a Limit on Chain Businesses?

When Union Square really comes into its own, and as Davis Square continues to develop, should Somerville establish regulations that limit corporate chains?

A number of communities are doing just that.  The Town of Concord is on the way for the West Concord Village to remain local and independent.

The positive community impacts for supporting locally owned, independent businesses are significant.  Dollars spent in local businesses stay in the community, continuing to circulate.  We’ve been lucky enough that all of the new businesses launched since USMS began  in 2005 are locally owned, with the great majority of them owned by people who live right here in Union Square.   These businesses have developed the unique character and the vibrant village-like life here in Union Square.  As our work continues, though, we’re likely to draw the attention of bigger, outside investors and corporate developers with connections to retail and restaurant chains.

Working with locally owned, independent businesses can be a challenge. They’re typically less well financed and they’re riskier. From an expediency stand-point,  it’s less attractive to commercial property owners to spend the time recruiting and managing a whole gaggle of independent business owners, many of whom are seeking concessions to launch their fledging effort.  In the long run, however, locally owned businesses bring a sense of character and place, something that no money can buy. For independent business owners, their storefront is their livelihood, not just one of hundreds or even thousands of sites, and they’re committed to making their particular corner work.  How much more love, personal attention and commitment do think Union Square gets from, say, Cantina La Mexicana, than we would if the location was a Taco Bell?

Some people are concerned about regulations that might limit free enterprise.   One concern that’s particularly relevant for Unio Square is that franchises are a means for novice business owners to launch a business and to secure the support and training they need to be successful; this is particularly attractive for immigrants unfamiliar with the regulatory system in the US. We did see one formula business open here since the launch of Union Square Main Streets, the Subway restaurant on the plaza.  The business owner lives in Somerville and Laxmi Pradham parlayed his investment and education into a new business, a restaurant  in Teele Square that isn’t a franchise. The sit-down restaurant will feature authentic Nepalese food and opens spring 2011.

Another concern is that larger retailers typically serve as “anchors” for a business district, drawing in customers who then visit other nearby shops, serving to improve the area as a whole.  One example of this happening was the improvement in Magoun Square at the corner of Broadway and Medford Street when CVS opened there.  The new foot traffic saw the enlivening of Medford Street with several new restaurants opening up in the years following the pharmacy/convenience store opening.  This can be a double-edged sword.  Boston’s Downtown Crossing hasn’t recovered from the loss of Filene’s.

Finally, to meet local needs, for some business types there are few options.  Chains such as  CVS and Home Depot have so effectively taken control of the market that it is exceedly difficult to recruit independently-owned businesses selling similar goods.  When was the last time you saw a new hardware or pharmacy open that wasn’t owned a chain?

For Union Square, as we grow and attract new investment, these concerns might encourage us to limit, but not completely prohibit, corporate owned restaurants or retailers.

To learn more about regulations on restricting formula businesses, visiting New Rules Project.