By Ward1 Alderman Matthew McLaughlin
Assembly Row is one of the few areas in the city that can accommodate large commercial and residential growth. That is why I fought to have it included in the city’s 20 percent affordable housing ordinance that the Board of Aldermen passed last May.
Now Federal Realty, a billion dollar developer, is requesting a waiver from this new standard. They argue that they had a Planned Unit Development (PUD) agreement from over ten years ago that supersedes any decisions an elected body makes from now until eternity.
What they don’t want to discuss is how many times the deal has changed to favor them. FRIT signed a covenant with the city agreeing to pay for infrastructure in Assembly. When the economy collapsed in 2008, FRIT said they needed the city to pay $25 million for infrastructure and the Orange Line train station. We helped mitigate their risk, which enabled FRIT to move forward on property that greatly increased in value from our train station. The rules were changed to favor them. The result has been a development explosion.
The PUD agreement FRIT cites as reason for exemption has been changed numerous times to benefit them. The agreement signed in 2006 was amended in 2010 and then 2014 to suit their needs. They are also requesting dozens of other waivers outside of the affordable housing waiver that they will most certainly get. These waivers are changes to their plans that they need permission from us to do. We repeatedly accommodate any changes they request for our shared benefit. The affordability waiver is not a shared benefit.
The site of this 500 unit complex was supposed to be used for much needed commercial space. The planning department claimed that the site was so far ahead of tany plan that no one knew what would go there. That does not make it better than if there were a plan for commercial development. There was no plan ten years ago to build a 500 unit complex at this site, yet we are expected to exempt them from our standards.
The 20 percent affordable housing standard is applied to all developers in the city. Development has not slowed one bit since we changed the law in May. There are developments in ward 1 as small as six units and as large as 100, one right outside Assembly, all willing to comply with this standard. Some even add affordable units just to make it more enticing to the community. These developments also go through multiple rounds of community meetings, something that never happens with FRIT.
It is time for our elected officials and planning department to take a stand for the struggling people of Somerville. Do we have a luxury housing crisis in this city? Or do we have an affordable housing crisis? If you think it is time for development without displacement I encourage you to contact the planning board at firstname.lastname@example.org and the mayor’s office at 617-625-6600 X 2100 and demand the waiver for affordable housing not be granted.