What a Revolting Development: Housing Stalls in East Somerville


By Matthew McLaughlin

 

Development in Somerville is easily one of the most contentious issues I deal with as a Ward Alderman. Some proposals can raise neighborhood concerns such as the sufficiency of parking, to density, to affordability. Others are more well-received by the community and are seen as benefits to the neighborhood.

Cities have always wrestled with these debates, and there are several proposed developments in East Somerville that have received mixed reviews from neighbors. The biggest problems in Ward 1, however, aren’t the developments seeking approval; they are the projects that already have been granted permits to build and yet lay stagnant.

Numerous developments in Ward 1 received approval from the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals but have not moved forward in any substantive way for various reasons. Some projects were approved before I entered office three years ago. They have permission to build, but instead treat our neighborhood like a storage unit for future profits. While there are many examples, I will highlight the most notable offenders.

Patsy’s Pastries is the most symbolic offender. Patsy’s was a beloved pastry shop that served neighbors for generations. The property was bought out by YIHE Real Estate, headquartered in Guangzhou, China that according to their website, “focuses on the development of large-scale luxury residential projects all over China.” I have never met the developers or anyone affiliated with YIHE Real Estate, and I doubt anyone from YIHE has ever even set foot in Somerville. I opposed this project for a number of reasons, but the Zoning Board granted them permits.

That was more than three years ago. The site still remains vacant, and the development remains dormant. We lost a great business and the tax revenue it provided. I am told demolition will begin in March and the project will start in May, but I’ve heard that line before. How many years does it take to get started? What are the reasons for the delay? It’s hard to ascertain because the owner lives outside of the country and likely views this property as just another asset in his portfolio. The fact that the Chinese housing market is so saturated that they are now looking at Somerville for development does not bode well for anyone.

Cobble Hill. While Patsy’s is the most symbolically offensive project that is delayed, the Cobble Hill Plaza development is the most damaging to neighbors, particularly the seniors adjacent to the project that relied on the plaza for bread and milk. Boston-based developer Corcoran Jennison Management Company received permits from the Zoning Board in 2013 to build 159 residential units with commercial space on the ground. As soon as they got their permits, they promptly evicted all of the businesses in the plaza. After that, the Somerville Journal reports that one of the partners in that project, Joseph Mullins, filed a breach of contract lawsuit because the project was “too risky.”

Apparently despite remaining a partner of the development that sought, and obtained, special permits and variances for prime real estate directly across the street from the future Washington Street Green Line Station is now “too risky.” In the meantime, the development’s permits have expired. They will have to resubmit permits for a new project, if it moves forward at all.

Stop and Shop. Another contentious project is the proposed 75 unit development across from the Super Stop and Shop. This was the first major project in Ward 1 when I became Alderman. We had an extensive community process and received numerous concessions including halving the number of units, making the units condos instead of rental, creating new green space, addressing parking concerns and contributing funds to a new pathway towards Assembly Row. The city also secured the General Insulation building on Cross Street, which I hope one day becomes a community center. For these and other reasons, I encouraged the city to approve the project.

That too was over three years ago. The project had no movement until their permits nearly expired, like the Cobble Hill development. Then the developer, who has since taken on another partner, began initial stages of construction just to make sure the permits weren’t revoked. They removed dirt from another site and piled it onto land that many use to walk their dogs. What was supposed to be a positive, community-oriented project has devolved into an eyesore.

These are the projects that come to mind when I am told we have to rush zoning and permitting for the sake of development. We are told repeatedly that we must accommodate development or suffer the consequences. Developers rush to get approval, but then take their time to actually utilize the permits. This is not the community partnership these developers promised East Somerville residents.

We must do more as a city to hold developers accountable. I am told repeatedly that we are limited in our ability to force construction, or even request information about the financial feasibility of projects. One proposal I plan on presenting to the Board of Aldermen is to require developers to pay a five-figure deposit that will only be refunded if the project begins on time. Another option would be to limit the permits to one year instead of two and add certain stipulations and restrictions to projects that require an extension.

As the city continues to move into the 21st century, we must not resist all development for the sake of resistance. We cannot, however, allow our city to be exploited solely for the sake of profit. We can and must demand excellence and partnership from development and ensure that projects meet community expectations.

 

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