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Dear Ward 3,


Before I get to the news and updates below, I want to share some encouraging news about traffic calming and pedestrian safety:

Last Thursday morning, I gathered a group of Ward 3 residents and traffic calming experts to test a simple, low-cost strategy to slow drivers down on residential streets: plastic flex posts

We began by measuring the typical driving speeds of cars heading down Vinal Ave. during morning rush hour. I chose Vinal Ave. for this test because it is a long, straight, one-way street on a steep hill, where speeding has been a persistent issue for many years, and where children often gather to visit Nunziato Park and the Community Growing Center. 

After measuring baseline speeds, we set out two plastic flex posts ~11 ft apart (see the picture above) in order to artificially narrow the road, and measured speeds again. The graph below shows the dramatic effect these flex posts had on driving speeds. Each blue dot represents the speed of a single car driving down Vinal Ave., and the horizontal line in the middle shows the average speed:
This is an amazing outcome. Not only did the average drop by ~5 mph, but before the flex-posts, nearly three quarters of cars were driving above the speed limit (20 mph) - afterwards, nearly three quarters were below the speed limit. This reduction in speed would have a huge impact on pedestrian safety during a crash, as pedestrian injuries are far more serious when cars are moving faster. These results also confirm what we know about how drivers psychologically respond to road width: narrower roads make drivers slow down. 

Permanent traffic calming requires serious investment in concrete infrastructure - raised crosswalks, curb "bump-outs," re-designed streets, etc. - all of which are very expensive and take years to implement. While we absolutely need to make those long-term investments, what I find so exciting about this approach is that it is fast, easy, and affordable (each post costs only about $80), and allows us to make real improvements while we wait for the long-term solutions. If we place these posts correctly, we won't lose parking spots, and the posts can easily be removed for the winter so they aren't destroyed by snow-plows. Based on the success of this test, I've formally asked the administration to commit to expanding this approach to multiple "problem locations" around the city, beginning Spring 2019. To be honest, I already have a list of about ten locations in Ward 3 alone where I think this approach would help, but I believe we need more data before the city is ready to commit at that scale. (A huge thank you to Ward 3's own Mark Chase for suggesting this approach, and for overseeing this experiment, to Adam Polinski from the Somerville Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and to all the neighbors who came out to help.


And now, additional news and updates:


1) Somerville Ave. Detour delayed until early 2019. As you know, there is going to be a six-month long, major traffic detour on Somerville Ave., related to the much-needed Somerville Ave. infrastructure work occurring in Union Square. This was originally planned to begin in early November, but for a number of reasons it has now been delayed until after the New Year. While construction delays typically aren't good news, there is a major upside to this announcement: it will provide much-needed relief to our local small businesses who were very worried about the effects of the detour on holiday shoppers. That said, the detour will undoubtedly be a major issue when it does occur next year, and we will all have to work together to mitigate the challenges. 

2) Update on "Opportunity Zones" and Union Square development. On Tuesday, Dec 11, the Board of Aldermen's Finance Committee will discuss two agenda items related to Union Square development. The first is a board order that I submitted regarding the brand new "Opportunity Zone" Federal tax-cut program. This is a new tax program that will that will dramatically increase investor returns for real estate investments in certain designated areas - including Union Square, Assembly Square, and other parts of Somerville. While most people have probably never heard of Opportunity Zones, this program has received overwhelming attention from the investment world - here's a recent quote from the Financial Times:


When Opportunity Zone legislation came out last December, in some ways we thought it was almost too good to be true,” said Sherry Wang, managing director at Goldman Sachs’ urban investment group, which focuses on disadvantaged communities. She was speaking last month at a conference organised by the real estate programme at Rutgers University Business School. “I think it’s a once-in-a-decade — maybe once-in-a-lifetime — opportunity,” Ms Wang added.

James Nelson, who heads the New York-area practice at Avison Young, a real estate broker, expresses similar enthusiasm. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything as close to exciting as we think this can be,” Mr Nelson says, predicting Opportunity Zones would become the method of choice for high net-worth individuals and family offices to make “intergenerational” transfers of wealth.


Here's the thing: I believe that these windfall profits actually do present a real opportunity for Somerville - if (and only if!) we ensure that they are used to fund community benefits, rather than simply lining investors' pockets. These increased profits must be used to fund more affordable housing, more dignified-wage jobs, sustainable buildings, and more public green space - otherwise, they're simply a give-away to the wealthy. These benefits are the very things our community has been pushing for in Union Square for years - and which we've consistently been told are simply "unrealistic" to expect. I believe the Opportunity Zone program dramatically shift that what "realistic" means in this context, and I have prepared a series of questions for the administration on this topic. Given all of the decisions that must be made regarding Union Square development over the next few months, I think it's critical that we begin this discussion now. 

At Tuesday's meeting, the Board of Aldermen will also receive an update regarding the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) negotiations, from both the Union Square Neighborhood Council and the developer, US2. I believe the CBA process provides a critical way for the community to improve the development for all of us, and I look forward to hearing their progress. Relatedly, there is a long article in today's Boston Globe providing an in-depth look at Union Square development, which I highly recommend reading. While the article doesn't include the recent Opportunity Zone designation, it provides a good overview of many of the issues involved.


3) The future of the Somerville Home. As I've written previously, the Somerville Home was a rest home for seniors and the disabled, which recently closed its doors after 120 years of operation - a major loss for our community. At the time, a number of Ward 3 residents reached out to me with concerns about the future of the site - would it become luxury condos? A high-end office building? Would we lose the community garden behind the Home? I'm pleased to say that we now know the building will become the home of Riverside Community Care, and will thus remain a non-profit organization dedicated to public health. In addition, I've spoken to members of the Executive Board, who have assured me that the community garden on Avon St. will be maintained, and that all renovations will be internal to the existing building. While I remain deeply saddened by the loss of the Somerville Home and the displacement of the former residents and devoted staff, I believe this is a good outcome given the challenging circumstances. I've requested a Community Meeting to be held this winter so that neighbors can ask questions about the transition, and I will let you know once the meeting is scheduled. 

4) Neighborhood Meeting for a proposed "passive house" development at 65 Bow St. (Monday, December 17th, 6:30p, at the Union Square Police Station.) I'll be hosting a neighborhood meeting to discuss a proposed development at 65 Bow St. - currently the site of Lein's Auto shop.  The developers, Scott Zink and David Lilley, are proposing a 5-story residential building built to "PHIUS passive house standards" - meaning extremely energy efficient - which they claim would be the first passive building of this size in the greater Boston area. Several environmental/climate-focused organizations have been advocating for more sustainable building practices and passive building, and I look forward to getting their feedback on the proposal. I will be distributing flyers about the meeting to abutters in the next few days, and I ask for your help spreading the word to folks you know in the area.

The developers have not yet shared drawings/plans, but the basic breakdown they have described to me is: 24 units, 20% affordable, with ground-floor retail, and with the fifth floor set back 10-12' feet from the front of the building. They are currently proposing ~16 underground parking spots, plus closing a curb cut that will create one public on-street spot. They also mentioned that a green roof is "possible," and that all rainwater will be "recharged on site." I have questions about all of these, and I'm sure that many of you do, too.

A number of neighbors have already done an excellent job of discussing their concerns with the developers over several months early this year, and I'm hopeful that this Neighborhood Meeting will help us get a sense of what the outstanding issues are, and whether the proposal is something that, on balance, would benefit the Union Square neighborhood and Somerville. 

5) Board of Aldermen approves zoning for adult-use marijuana retail establishments. Last week, Ward 2 Alderman J.T. Scott testified before the Boston City Council on the groundbreaking work that Somerville has done to promote equity and economic justice in the adult-use marijuana. I'm proud to say that in response, the Boston Mayor's office went on the record to say that Boston should consider following in our footsteps, in order to support businesses run by people who have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs over the past many decades. In addition, Somerville has now passed a set of zoning regulations regarding where retail establishments are allowed to apply for licenses, which essentially mimics how alcohol is regulated, and avoids any geographic bias that would force retail stores into any one particular neighborhood. In addition, there is a 300-ft buffer zone around all schools, as well as a 500-ft discretionary zone, in which businesses would need to seek special zoning approval and demonstrate that such a business would adversely affect public education. Under state law, no one under 21 will ever be allowed to even enter such a facility, and Somerville's Board of Health and Licensing Commission will be working to ensure that public education and safety are top priorities when considering retail licensing within the city. Overall, I believe that we have settled on a fair, equitable, and safe outcome, and I'm grateful to everyone who's been involved in the process thus far.

6) The fourth public meeting to discuss Parking Changes at the Somerville High School will be Wednesday, December 12th, 6:00, in the Central Library Auditorium (79 Highland Ave.) I have continued to work with the administration and a group of dedicated residents and High School teachers to come up with ways to mitigate the effects of losing a large number of parking spots at the High School. There are many issues remaining to be settled, and I hope to see many of you at this meeting to discuss our progress. 

As always, this is only a small slice of what's going on in Ward 3 and across Somerville, and I encourage to reach out with any questions/concerns. You can follow along with the Board's activities here - if you click on the date/time of a specific meeting, you'll see a hyperlinked agenda with background and documents for all of the topics on the agenda. 

Sincerely,

Ben Ewen-Campen
Ward 3 Alderman

 
Copyright © 2018 The Committee to Elect Ben Ewen-Campen, All rights reserved.


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