Dear Ward 3,
There are a number of important updates below, but first a sad note:
For the past 120 years, the Somerville Home has operated as a non-profit rest home for seniors and the disabled, right on Summer St. in the heart of Ward 3. However, a few weeks ago, the Somerville Home announced that they would be permanently closing their doors this year, and relocating the 46 current residents and 26 staff. The reason is straightforward: after many years of insufficient funding from the State, their operation is no longer sustainable.
Last Thursday, I joined State Senator Pat Jehlen on a visit to the Somerville Home to hear directly from the residents and staff. We heard emotional, moving stories from the residents about the close relationships they had built with one another, and with their deeply caring staff, which will likely be lost during their displacement to other facilities, many of them far from Somerville. And according to Senator Jehlen, there are currently two other similar facilities closing in her district alone:
"Nonprofit, high quality programs are shutting down, either with no replacement or with for-profit programs with lower quality..."This is our home," [the residents] said several times. "Nobody cares about us." It's hard to hear, hard to answer. We continue to try to increase rates for rest homes and adult day health programs; it's almost certainly too late to save the Somerville Home, but maybe we can use this story to increase awareness and support to save others."
A number of you have asked me about the future of the Somerville Home - particularly, many people are (very reasonably) concerned that the site will be sold off and flipped to high-end condos. I have spoken with several members of the Somerville Home's Executive Board, and I know that they are working very hard to find a non-profit, care-based use for the site. I will continue to do everything I can to advocate for an outcome that serves those in need in our community.
A few weeks ago, I was out knocking doors and I caught a glimpse of Governor Baker's re-election materials, in which he brags that he has blocked "tax increases and out-of-control spending on Beacon Hill." Maybe this is a catchy sound byte to some voters in our state, but it's clear to me what it means in our own community: the closing of facilities like the Somerville Home and the displacement of many of our most vulnerable neighbors. I'm looking forward to the election in November.
And now, some additional news and updates:
1) Changes to the Planning Board, Zoning Board, and Redevelopment Authority - an update from the Confirmation of Appointments committee.
On August 28th, the Board of Aldermen took the highly unusual step of voting against the confirmation of two Mayoral appointees, both whom of have served for at least twenty years, one a member of the Planning Board and the other the chair of Somerville Redevelopment Authority. I'd like to take a moment to explain my thoughts on this important issue, and why I voted against confirmation.
When it comes to regulating development in Somerville, nearly all of the legal decision-making power is held by several Boards that are appointed by the Mayor's office: the Planning Board, the Zoning Board, and the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA). These Boards oversee everything from small changes by home-owners, all the way to enormous developments such as those in Assembly Square and Union Square. The members of these Boards are appointed by the Mayor, and are subject to confirmation by the Board of Aldermen - a process that, in the past, has often been described as a rubber stamp. As a new member of the Confirmation of Appointments Committee, I have been taking the confirmation process very seriously, as have my colleagues, including Ward 2 Alderman JT Scott, who chairs the committee.
Given the dramatic acceleration of development in Somerville, there has been increasing public scrutiny of these appointed Boards over the past few years - including, for instance, a widely circulated petition last year. In particular, I believe that a number of high-profile decisions made by these Boards have shaken the public's trust in how decisions are made by our local government. A few examples:
- Last year, the Planning Board approved the so-called "FRIT waiver," which allowed the major Assembly Square developer, FRIT, to forego our city's 20% affordable housing requirement, despite widespread public outcry. The Planning Board also approved the Union Square "Coordinated Development Special Permit" that many residents felt didn't hold the developer to high enough standards, and has left the public with limited options for improving the design and conditions of Union Square redevelopment.
- The Somerville Redevelopment Authority selected the Union Square developer, US2, rather than an alternative developer which had been the strong preference of a Community Advisory Committee, at a meeting that was described by a local newspaper this way: "After an at-times raucous meeting, which contained audience outbursts and city officials’ calls for illegal backroom meetings, the Somerville Redevelopment Authority unanimously picked development firm US2 to handle the billion-dollar redevelopment of Union Square." The SRA also approved a purchase-and-sale contract with US2 (the "Master Land Disposition Agreement") at a meeting that many residents reported was packed with unfamiliar, pro-developer protesters - so-called "astroturfing." (This is consistent with a Boston Globe report describing US2's relationship with an unusual lobbying firm known for this type of activity.) The nature of the public process at both of these critical meetings led many residents to lose faith in the process, and I believe has contributed to profound mistrust throughout this redevelopment effort.
The real estate market in Somerville is a far cry from what it was twenty years ago. Today, given the enormous interest our city, and the considerable leverage we have in directing development, I believe we need to take community concerns about affordability, green space, equity, and sustainability far more seriously, rather than viewing them as impediments to growing our tax base as rapidly as possible. I believe it is critically important to have highly qualified, independent, and responsive appointees on all of these Boards - people who will hold developers to the highest standards possible, and who will engender trust from the public during contentious and difficult decisions.
By no means do I expect to agree with every decision made by these Boards - but I believe we all need to have faith in the fairness and transparency of the process, especially on decisions we disagree with. For anyone interested in our lengthy deliberation on these confirmations, there is a full video available of this committee meeting, as well as written comments from Alderman Niedergang, here. In addition, a number of other long-serving members of these Boards, including the Chair of the Planning Board and the vice-chair of the Zoning Board, have decided not to seek re-appointment, and I'm hopeful that highly qualified applicants will be appointed to fill these positions as soon as possible to help shape the future of Somerville.
2) Tree progress!
There has been a great deal of concern about the large amount of trees being cut down in Somerville to make way for infrastructure construction - the clear-cutting of the GLX corridor, as well as tree cutting along Somerville Ave., Beacon St., and the High School campus, to name a few. I'm glad to say that we have begun to make some real progress on the issue. Specifically: 1) thanks to consistent community activism, the Mayor's office has opened the call to fill a new Urban Forestry Committee with qualified members (more info here); 2) the Board of Aldermen recently approved the creation of a new staff position, a Senior Urban Forestry & Landscape Planner, to oversee green planning and to assist our city Arborist in her monumental amount of work and 3) Appropriating $150,000 for new tree plantings this season. It will take hard work to ensure follow-through on all these issues, and I want to thank everyone who has been involved thus far for their efforts.
3) Seeking public comment on three important issues: recreational marijuana zoning and regulation, developer contributions for green and open space in Assembly Square, and stricter regulations for new buildings near highways.
The Board of Aldermen is currently deliberating on both the zoning (where) and regulation (how, what) of adult use marijuana facilities in Somerville - these will include retail stores, as well as research/business/growing facilities. Legally, we are required to address this issue before the end of December, but I hope we can do it sooner. The city has built a website containing links to all of the relevant information, and I invite you to take a look if this topic interests you; I have a number of questions and concerns, but overall I believe that the proposals under deliberation are a very good start. My own focus during these deliberations will be on equity, social justice, and public education. This means working to ensure that the our local industry is not dominated by mega-corporations and national lobbying firms, that new businesses respect our community and neighborhoods, and that we do everything we can to address the inequalities of the "war on drugs." We must also ensure that all of our residents - especially young adults and famliies - are well educated with the most up-to-date scientific information on the health and safety issues relating to marijuana. Here is the proposed zoning map, which essentially matches the existing medical marijuana zoning - the green areas are proposed to be where retail stores are allowed:
In addition, we are currently accepting formal Public Comment on two zoning ordinances: the first ordinance would require developers of tall buildings in Assembly Square to make increased financial contributions for green and open space based on a square footage basis, and the other would require enhanced environmental mitigation for new developments near highways, where pollution from vehicles has been very clearly documented to have severe negative health consequences in Somerville. An in-person Public Hearing was held on these items on September 6th (including extensive background presentations on the rationale for both proposals), and written comments can be sent (to Planning@SomervilleMA.gov) until noon on September 28th for the green space ordinance, and October 12th for the highway pollution ordinance.
4) Addressing the increase in rat activity throughout Union Square. I've heard from many residents that rat sightings are on the rise throughout the area - likely related to the extensive construction on the GLX and the sewers below Somerville Ave. Please report any rat sightings to 311 and/or to me, which will help us track the problem, trap rats, and deal with any trash violations in the area that may be exacerbating the problem. On a systematic level, the City has hired a consultant to give comprehensive advice on the issue, and we have also recently hired a dedicated staff position within Health and Human Services to manage this issue. I also serve on the Board of Aldermen's Rat Committee, which meets nearly monthly, and is always open to members of the public.
5) A ~six-to-nine month delay in Union Square development. The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act ("MEPA") Office has ruled that the Union Square developer must create a full environmental review of the entire Union Square redevelopment project - all seven "development blocks," across the square - before they can begin construction on any one of those parcels. (The developer had sought a waiver that would have allowed an expedited process for the "D-2" block, and this request was denied at the State level.) For anyone interested in the nitty-gritty details, you can read the full report here. Practically speaking, I hope that this additional six to nine month period will relieve the time pressure on Somerville's Design Review Committee, allowing them to continue addressing their major design issues with the proposed development, and will give the developer more time to adequately respond to community concerns. I am deeply thankful to everyone in the community who has poured countless hours into working to make sure this redevelopment can benefit everyone in Somerville.
6) The Board of Aldermen unanimously endorses the "Yes On 3!" campaign to protect the rights of transgender people in Massachusetts. When you go to the polls on November 6, you will see Ballot Question 3, which relates to our state's existing anti-discrimination protections for transgender people - a "Yes" vote is a vote to protect transgender rights and protections. I was proud to support a resolution written and submitted by Ward 6 Alderman Lance Davis, expressing the Board's unanimous support for Question 3. Read the full Resolution here; and if you are interested in working to make sure we win this ballot question, let me know and I can put you in touch with local organizers.
7) Ongoing neighborhood development proposals: 124 Highland (the American Legion Post 19) and the 125 Lowell St (the former nurse's college.) I have separate email threads going for these two developments - if you are interested in either of these two developments, and aren't already on the mailing lists, please shoot me an email and I will add you.
As always, you can follow along with the Board's meeting schedule here. Thank you all for reading, and please reach out with any questions or concerns.
Ben Ewen-Campen, Ward 3 Alderman.