By William Tauro
This past Monday evening, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone delivered his State of the City Address.
President William White of the Board of Aldermen and the Somerville School Committee Chairperson also delivered their mid-term remarks as well in the Aldermanic Chambers located on the second floor of City Hall. Read the mayor’s speech in it’s entirety:
“Good evening President White, Vice President Ballantyne, Chair Pitone and Vice Chair Green; honorable members of the Board of Aldermen, School Committee, and Somerville Delegation, Superintendent Skipper; honored guests, friends, family, and staff. And above all, welcome, Somerville residents.
I want to wish you a Happy New Year. Each year I stand before you at this time to talk about what we have accomplished together over the past year and what we will take on in the new year.
This is a special year for Somerville. It marks our 175th anniversary. I am humbled and grateful — as always — to serve as the Mayor of Somerville and especially this year as our city rounds this milestone.
Of course, I couldn’t do this job without the support – and patience – of my family, especially my wife, Nancy, and our four sons – Cosmo, Joey, Patrick, and James. I want to thank them for being there for me every day.
As we look forward to 2017, I want to focus tonight on resolve. Just days ago, as we do every year, we raised the Grand Union Flag at Prospect Hill Tower. The annual event marks the anniversary of the first raising of the new American flag. On that New Year’s Day in 1776, when the flag was hoisted atop Prospect Hill by George Washington’s Army, it was bitterly cold, the future was unclear, there was no nation yet, there was no certain path to victory. But they raised the flag over the highest point of land for all to see anyway.
They were determined.
They were resolved.
For the nation, that moment is a symbol of the unstoppable American spirit that led to a republic founded on liberty, justice, freedom, and equality. For Somerville, it is also a reminder that fortune… favors… the bold.
True to that principle, Somerville itself has become a blueprint for progressive, innovative local government and a leading voice among cities for diversity and social equity. But we are in a decisive historical moment.
We have a divided nation. Our President-Elect recently referred to the people who didn’t vote for him as his “enemies.” Many are afraid that too much of what we value may now hang in the balance. We live in anxious times.
We don’t know what’s going to happen at the national level. But we in city government can knuckle down and get the people’s business done. In Somerville, we pride ourselves on the notion that we’re a model community, a place others can look to see how it’s done right. Our City motto is “Municipal freedom gives national strength.” Now more than ever Somerville must embody that ethos. Somerville needs to BE Somerville. Others need to see our resolve in action.
We must continue to strive for excellence in our core services. We must continue to achieve our shared long-term community vision and face our most pressing challenges. We must continue to serve as a beacon for civility, diversity and social progress. We must show the resolve to move forward with the policies and programs that align with our community values. Somerville has a strength that the nation could sorely use: our ability to come together rather than break apart.
That’s what we did last year in deeds large and small. That strength — and that resolve —helped us achieve big things…
There’s no better example than the way we stepped up when the Green Line Extension was in peril. Somerville took a historic vote to save the project. I’d like to thank the Board of Aldermen again for approving the $50 million city contribution that allowed the Green Line Extension to proceed. None of us liked the fact that the state demanded we pay. But we wanted to honor the will — and the decades-long fight — of this community. So we made a bold decision. We made the right decision. Somerville delivered.
In May, we took another significant step. This one will help ensure we seize all of the opportunities and benefits the Green Line can provide: we approved the Union Square Neighborhood Plan. The Plan sets into motion a community-driven vision for growth in Union Square and Boynton Yards. It calls for 15,000 new jobs and more than 12 acres of public space. In the coming months, we will finalize a community benefits plan that likewise honors the values upheld in SomerVision. And we will work to pass the Union Square zoning that makes all of this possible.
Look across this City and you can already see the positive effects we get when we lay the groundwork for economic growth. In the last two years, our building permit revenues increased by over 465 percent. Over the same period, more than 250 new businesses have been added to our local economy. Companies that got their start here are thriving and growing. For one, Greentown Labs is currently expanding here and, when done, will be THE largest green tech incubator in the WORLD.
Nowhere is our City’s recent economic growth and strategic vision more clear than Assembly Row. Our smart investments and community planning are paying off. In Fiscal Year 16, nearly one-third of our new commercial growth was generated by the newest office and retail buildings at Assembly Row. That’s $26.8 million of new growth, in just one fiscal year, and we are already seeing that help our taxpayers. Without the tax revenue produced by Assembly, the tax increase for the average two-family home this year would have been $318. But Assembly drove that down to just $74 instead. And Assembly Row is not fully built out. We expect 2 million more square feet of development over the next ten years.
In Assembly Row–and across the city–we are making good on our promise to grow the jobs and tax revenue that SomerVision calls for.
Along with Cambridge, we have the lowest unemployment rate in the Commonwealth at 1.7 percent. But for too many of our residents, underemployment and wage suppression are a reality. So we must prepare and train Somerville residents to access the quality jobs we create here.
That’s why in 2016, we upgraded the Somerville High machine shop to a facility now on par with the finest factory floor in the Commonwealth. We now train both students and adults for the well-paid jobs in the advanced manufacturing sector. It’s why we opened our own fabrication laboratory called FabVille, with grant support from the Commonwealth, to offer job training for the 21st century economy. And it’s why we worked with our State delegation to get a Jobs Linkage Home Rule Petition passed. This will generate a permanent funding source for new workforce development programs. I want to thank the delegation and Representative Barber especially for supporting Somerville workers and getting it passed.
Actually, I want to thank the entire delegation for all the work they do on ALL of our home rule petitions–we’ve had quite a few.
We’ve created a culture where we spend wisely and get the best return on our investments. As a result, we’ve never been in better fiscal shape. We borrow cautiously. We don’t squander our financial reserves to pay for current operating expenses. Rather, through careful and prudent management, we have expanded our reserves to the highest level in the City’s history. Those reserves help our taxpayers. They cushion the impact of the cost of big-ticket investments such as the Green Line, and they are a hedge against any unforeseen fiscal downturn. We are on such solid fiscal ground that we are prepared not just for rainy days, but to make the next bold investments that will best secure the long-term fiscal health of our community.
But make no mistake, we are also prepared to take care of the day-to-day tasks that keep our city running. Just through 311, we responded to and resolved more than 90,000 service or information requests from residents last year. And that’s just a fraction of the daily work our fiscal strength makes possible.
We spend a lot of time talking about economic growth and taxes and projects, but we should remember the reason we do all of that is we want to deliver a better quality of life for our residents. And that starts with our children. In 2016, we continued to make historic investments in our schools and, as a result, the Somerville Public Schools once again ranked as the top urban school district for student growth.
Our voters chose to make a critical investment in our youth last year as well. They passed the debt exclusion needed to build a new high school. I want to thank the Board of Aldermen, the School Committee, school superintendent Mary Skipper, and the School Building Committee. I especially want to thank the residents who helped develop plans for and who fought for the new high school, and the voters who reaffirmed our commitment to our students.
On this point, I want to go back to the concept of resolve for a moment. The high school is an enormous undertaking. To many, it seemed almost impossible. The Green Line too at times seemed out of reach. But we came together and moved them forward. Projects like the high school and Green Line Extension are why we get involved in city government in the first place, to do the things that matter. And it’s why we look to you, our constituents, to help guide our policies and decisions for our future. Together, we can do exceptional things.
In 2016, our City’s overall crime rate dropped more than 21 percent. That is a testament to our community and the extraordinary leadership of Police Chief David Fallon and his Command Staff. The Somerville Police Department’s commitment to community policing–and to creating a police force that is proactive and highly trained–has prepared us to meet the needs of a densely packed and diverse city like Somerville. Not to mention that when an escaped federal prisoner crossed into Somerville last week, our officers along with the State’s had him in custody in no time.
I thank you, Chief, and the entire Somerville Police Department for your excellent work in keeping our community safe and working for positive change.
We are striving for safety on our roads and walkways as well. The number of pedestrians and cyclists in Somerville continued to increase in 2016. To keep them safe, Somerville lowered citywide speed limits to 25 miles per hour on most roads — a change that will save lives and prevent serious injuries. I want to especially thank Representative Provost for her work in the legislature that made that possible. We also improved sidewalk repair and maintenance. We introduced higher visibility bike lanes. And we made significant progress in the reconstruction of Beacon St., which will deliver the city’s first protected bike lane. Somerville now ranks 7th nationally for walkability and 4th for bike commuting. We are in the midst of a transportation revolution, one that actually works for the PEOPLE who live in urban areas.
Last year, as we planned for Somerville’s future above-ground, we also made strides below ground. As I mentioned, Somerville is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Some of our sewer lines are not far behind. The brick and mortar sewer in Union Square dates back to the Civil War. But we are making progress on upgrades. Somerville recently won a $13 million MassWorks grant from the state. These funds will help us reduce legacy flooding issues around Union Square, improve sewer service to more than 20,000 homes, and make possible the development that SomerVision calls for.
We also made progress on our commitment to address the impacts of climate change. We conducted a climate change vulnerability assessment. We completed numerous energy efficiency projects. And we inspired more than 100 homeowners to sign on to install solar panels that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But we cannot combat climate change alone. That’s why I urged my fellow metro mayors to unite in pledging to lead the fight against climate change. In November, we all signed a commitment to make the Metro Boston Region a net zero, carbon-free region by 2050.
Finally, there was the election. While the outcome of the presidential race was not what many of us wanted or expected, there were positives locally. Somerville saw 8,200 new voters register in the City and we had the fourth highest turnout in the Commonwealth for early voting — 39.9 percent of voters.
But Somerville turns out every day, not just for elections. Someone recently suggested this tagline for us: “Somerville: one big community process with some housing.”
We’re always ready to engage in city discussions. Getting to decisions sometimes involves spirited debate, but that’s a good thing. In Somerville, we know that you need to raise the disequilibrium to achieve success — which brings me right to one of our greatest responsibilities in the coming year: passing our zoning overhaul.
If we are to continue to make good on the goals of our community, we must pass a modern zoning ordinance that brings the fundamental rules of how this city operates in line with the SomerVision community plan. The people of Somerville came out and told us what they want. They went to meeting after meeting, month after month, year after year. They made SomerVision a community vision. It’s not MY plan. It’s SOMERVILLE’S plan. And those of us in city government are responsible for delivering on it. The zoning overhaul is a key step toward that.
Zoning touches almost every major issue in our community. We can’t claim to care about making housing affordable for a greater number of people if we’re not passing the zoning to make that possible. We can’t claim we care about open space if we don’t pass the zoning that delineates how we get more open space. We can’t say we want jobs and commercial growth, which shifts the local tax burden away from our residents, if we’re not going to give commercial developers a better sense of where and what they can build in our city. We can’t claim to care about preserving the character of our residential neighborhoods if we won’t change a system in which only 22 homes in the entire city conform to our zoning.
Just like we stepped up on the Green Line and for a new high school, we need to step up on a new zoning code. We won’t get the future the people of Somerville came together to shape if we fail to do this. We need to honor that effort, that will, and that resolve. We have an opportunity to pass the most progressive zoning ordinance to be found anywhere, something capable of shaping the future of this city in alignment with our shared community values. It’s time we pass zoning.
Housing affordability remains a challenge, and a top priority. There is no silver bullet, but we are working on multiple fronts to address the issue. We’ve received the first installment of $4.3 million in linkage payments from Partners Healthcare dedicated to the creation of affordable housing. We’re working with the Somerville Community Corporation to buy 100 homes to preserve them as permanent affordable housing. Thanks to the kind of grassroots efforts that make our city better, we raised our inclusionary housing requirement to among the highest in the nation at 20 percent. To help our working families stay here, we worked to open our inclusionary housing program to middle income residents. And we just cut the ribbon for the Union Square Apartments, adding 35 affordable rental units.
I cannot stress enough that we must build the housing that SomerVision calls for–if not more. Last week, news came that for the first time since 2010, rents are declining in Boston. The decline is credited to their housing construction boom. If we believe Somerville should be affordable for all, we must do our part to address our housing shortage.
To this end, we will continue to work in earnest in the coming year toward establishing a real estate transfer charge that could support affordable housing and other pressing needs. This bold idea was proposed by community members who served on the Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group–and we are doing the work to make it happen.
In 2017, we will continue our efforts to support our makers and artists. Plans for the ArtFarm at the old Waste Transfer site are taking shape. It will be our next great public open space fostering art and urban agriculture programs. The zoning overhaul, here too, is critical. It includes set asides for maker and artist spaces, establishes arts and fabrication districts and work/live zoning. If we want to keep the vibrant artist community that has been at the core of this city’s modern revival, we need to have its future baked into our zoning.
Another challenge we must meet is our need for more open space and better athletic fields. In our SomerVision plan, we set an ambitious goal of 125 acres of new open and public space. We will need to be creative to get there. And again, we’re not going to get there without the new zoning, which lays out 12 different types of open spaces around new developments.
Our fields remain a priority, and our new Fields Master Plan vetted with the community now lays out a course for methodical investment in our playing fields so that the people of Somerville can get outside and play hard.
In 2017, we will advance our work with this Board to make Somerville a standard bearer for fair and open elections. I will call together a clean elections task force. Their duty will be no less than to ensure we pursue the highest ideals of participatory democracy. We must expand voter participation through inclusive reforms including early voting in municipal elections. And we must safeguard the right of every voter or candidate to participate equally in our political process. We MUST resolve to publicly finance our elections. We must be bold enough to change the status quo.
I want to close with some words about the people who need us most. We must stand up for one another. That’s why we’re intensifying our outreach efforts to our Veterans through our new SomerVets Program. That’s why we are increasing accessibility on City streets, sidewalks, and in our buildings. It’s why we hired a multi-lingual social worker. It’s why we’re working with the Social Progress Imperative to measure improvements to our quality of life. And it’s why we are working intensively to provide important resources and support to those affected by the ravages of the opioid epidemic.
It’s why Somerville will remain a Sanctuary City no matter what happens in Washington. It’s why, we’re holding critical dialogue in our ongoing Conversations Series on racism, LGBTQ topics, and other important social issues. It’s why we pointed the lens at ourselves in those open and frank discussions that covered everything from our hiring practices to police policies. It’s why in 2017 all of this work will continue.
As a City, we have come a long way since our separation from Charlestown those 175 years ago. Our economy is growing and thriving. Our schools are among the best in the state. Our public safety teams are proving that low crime and urban living can go together.
Yes, we have work to do. Affordable housing, quality and quantity of open space, social equity and inclusion are issues that communities across the region continue to grapple with, but together we WILL tackle them. We will have some tough decisions to make. With the unplanned expense of the Green Line Extension and the necessary infrastructure work we must do for our community, we must make careful choices in the coming years on other priorities.
We will not be able to do everything — right away. But what is clear is that if we stay the course on SomerVision, if we remain bold and resolved, we will get there over time. The beauty of that plan is that it plans for all of us. It plans for the development that will bring not just housing and jobs, but the tax revenues and developer contributions that will help pay for the programs, initiatives, and services that will make possible the community we envision — for each AND EVERY one of us.
As we enter 2017, I am resolved to deliver on this city’s grandest visions. I am resolved to be the voice for those who need someone to speak up for them. I am resolved to show anyone who cares to look, that the Somerville way is the better way. This year, as always, I hope YOU will resolve to join me and this Board in that. We know who we are. Now we just need to be the best version of Somerville that we can be.”