SOMERVILLE:BIG LOTS = BIG MONEY FOR DEVELOPERS


By Judy Locchi Jacobs 
 

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” – Aldo Leopold

The most glaring realization of the Porter Street neighborhood controversy, is not due to its proximity to Porter Square MBTA, it’s that city officials primary focus in on creating a bedroom community for thousands of transient millennials who can hop on a bike and be at Harvard and MIT in record time, financial district, seaport and the ever so bloated world of the techie. The underlying reason is much more important to those who would hope to benefit the most, lucratively that is and one that few are unfamiliar – It’s due to the size of its properties, some much bigger than the typically, average square shaped lots in Somerville.

How Many LAWYERS is Too Many LAWYERS?

Porter’s gem is their wider lots which lawyer-developers (one in the same), want for the obvious reasons – they can cram more units into the property’s generous square footage. The fact that developers are now descending upon this region of the city (Ward 3 and 5), is due to “BIG LOTS”, which would allow them the hopeful prospect of building higher number of condos under the ‘by-right’ zoning which is making homeowner occupied residents concerned, and rightly so. Davis Square is already built-out, there are no additional prospects to be had by unscrupulous developers. They are now setting their sights on the adjacent neighborhood of the controversial VFW Summer, Elm and specifically Porter Street’s which hold, “Big Lots”. It’s definitely more bang-for-their-buck in terms of the robo-condo-frenzy we see going on around us.

The following is my overall impression, including details and comments by residents who attended the meeting last night, September 6 at 6:00 p.m., in the Aldermanic Chambers at Somerville City Hall. The attached memo was prepared by George Proakis, Director of Planning and the meeting was moderated by Lance Davis, Chair of Land Use Committee and Alderman of Ward 6. Also in attendance were members of BOA Land Use Committee and Planning Division.

What prompted the meeting was a sense of urgency by the neighboring residents who fear the unwarranted encroachment by fellow neighbors looking to build (8) condos on, their “big lots”. This type of development is tearing neighborhoods apart – pitting the neighboring sellers against lifelong neighbors, some fourth generation, local residents who wish to remain. This segment of the city’s population represent those who are against increased numbers of units leading to out-of-control density. There are a number of residents frustrated with city officials who appear to be indifferent and not pushing back hard enough on developers who resist conforming to building that “blends in”, with the rest of the neighborhood.

Throughout the city, residents are feeling the stress caused by apparent overcrowding which I believe is linked to increased road rage and bitterness from those upset about too many changes all at once. Many neighborhoods are split and disagree on what should be done about the continued development projects –what is considered fair or unfair, reasonable and unreasonable and not allowed under any circumstances. 

From an environmental perspective, cutting trees in an urban area consumed by more-grey-than-green, seems unnecessary, even downright cruel for the dedicated urban gardener. Instead, of removing neighbors trees, developers should be working to preserve our vegetation due to the many benefits it provides such as air purification, noise reduction, flood prevention, aesthetics and benefits to our urban wildlife habitat.

Some of the complaints by the neighbors of Porter Street, were of the developer not having a visible permit on the property during construction. There were also complaints of unauthorized encroachment and cutting trees on adjacent lots belonging to neighbors. These situations sounded the alarms to their Ward 3 and 5 aldermen, Bob McWaters and Mark Niedergang who were thanked for their quick response on the matter. The case in question, was a proposed structure to house 8 condo units on Porter Street. A common issue raised, is the lack of on-street parking since each new condo adds two cars to the dense neighborhood, which force existing residents to park on adjacent streets. Residents complained about the lack of sunlight this structure would create in their own homes, as they learned by a former project.

Residents also complained about increased density and traffic to an area that has already experienced so much over past years, while noting that some city officials continue to defend such developments by a common excuse that, “IT’S LEGAL” and therefore renders itself as uncontested in the eyes of the law. Neighbors described their quality of life as negatively impacted by, so many “strangers”, moving into the neighborhoods, while recalling how they miss their friendly former neighbors and explained that “everyone is surrounded by newcomers who are not engaged and keep to themselves”. 

George Proakis directed much of the meeting as he referenced his (5) page memo while members read along. I’m uncertain as to whether or not this meeting was originally intended to address only the issue surrounding the Porter Street neighborhood and one proposed project which set off a chain reaction prompting such a meeting or planned as a discussion to address the entire city wide zoning overhaul in general. Word around town is the, “zoning overhaul”, won’t be official until after the upcoming election. My overall impression of the meeting, is one which lacked substantive dialogue and concrete information about the “new plan for zoning overhaul”. It was important meeting for residents of Porter and adjacent streets, because it represented the issues we see as an ongoing pattern city wide.

As a matter of principle and common sense decency, the city officials should be transparent of these projects and their plans on zoning overhaul and ‘by-right’ zoning, so the city at large, including home, business owners and renters are aware of the changes. 

It’s so convoluted and contradictory, I don’t know how anyone can make sense of it.

 Take for instance, on page (4), under header, “Property Values”,

“Homeowners seeking to sell their homes to maximize profit by finding a buyer who would add additional housing units or a large addition may see a drop in sale price. This could most significantly impact 13 of the 78 parcels that would lose the capacity to add one or more new units’ by-right”.

George Proakis was asked to clarify, which he responded, “Well, every case is subject to different zoning requirements so it would have to be considered on an individual basis and every homeowner would have to be interviewed”.

Why have any zoning requirements at all if it’s done as a case to case basis?

Where is the zoning play book for residents who need to evaluate their options?

First of all, there were no documents to distribute to the public which consisted of about 25 residents, many from Porter Street and adjacent streets.  

With the exception of a few stragglers left in the first row, next to George Proakis, city planner, who received his Masters in City Planning at MIT in 2002—there were not enough memos for distribution for residents in attendance.

The meeting was open to public comments, which I along with about 6 residents and homeowners from Porter Street neighborhood addressed the Board of Aldermen and Board of Planning at the podium.

I opened up with my first comment to describe what is going on in our own neighborhood in Ward 7:

There is a business owner, (real estate lawyer) and I won’t mention names but he has recently purchased (5) homes on our street. One he purchased last year, quickly turned into 2 condos, with table saws going off at 5 a.m., during work days and weekends. One owner who recently put his home on the market has been approached by the same lawyer and has refused to sell his home to this aggressive buyer”. This lawyer already has a monopoly of properties throughout the city. He is known for painting the same color on all homes which has become his trademark. It’s well known to neighbors who have shared with me, that this same lawyer built a 3-family and attached it to an existing 3-family, across from Hodgkin’s Park on Holland Street, in Ward 7. So when the planning department puts in print, that structures must be conforming to surrounding buildings, in this case as in others, it clearly does not apply.

Please do not schedule meetings on holiday weeks. I believe we would have more residents attend. Can we get someone in the Communications Department to alert us in advance when meetings are to be held?

I have worked in local colleges for a total of 20 years and I know our city has rapidly become a bedroom community catering to those who work and attend classes elsewhere.
Comments by residents who addressed Planning and Board of Aldermen:

“The Town of Lexington makes it difficult to cut trees down. I would like to see the City of Somerville adopt the same ordinance for property owners so developers cannot encroach and remove trees on their properties. Replacing dwarfed trees with decade old trees is inadequate”.

 “These monstrosities developers are building are blocking out our natural light, our on street parking is disappearing by so many condo units created, and our neighbors are disappearing. 

“Parks get taken away and replaced with huge buildings. On Craigie Street, they tore down big trees. Let’s preserve what’s left”! 

“Linden Terrace was an ugly development and should have never been allowed”.

“What if property owners want to add additional units to their home and are prevented from doing so? There goes that college fund, if they don’t allow us to build”.

“The money is going into the pockets of outsiders and other people who don’t live here. Developers get whatever they want”.

Final thoughts:

I have yet to fully understand how the system of planning and zoning work in our city. In many ways, it appears to be contradictory and favoring certain owners and developers and also real estate attorney’s working with city officials. How can our city officials wear two hats—one which is a business owner involved in real estate transactions and another who claims to be working in the best interest of the constituency?

When I mentioned in an earlier opinion piece, of family members holding positions with the city administration that clearly represent a conflict of interest, I was focusing my attention on zoning and planning. It’s best to hire individuals who are far removed from connections because creates complications. I agree when others have insisted that we demand TERM LIMITS!

I wish I could say we had an eventful and productive night at the Aldermanic Chambers last night regarding the proposed zoning overhaul and the fate of Porter Street and beyond, but I was left with more questions than answers which appear to be an all too familiar pattern at all meetings I’ve attended past and most recent.

I can’t help wonder about connections aldermen have outside of their responsibilities as aldermen. For instance one is an alumnus, two have children who are graduates of our non-profit, also family members working at non-tax-paying neighbor– Tufts University. Another works for a major software company as their corporate counsel. Others have spouses on the zoning board, and hold a position as an architect working on projects in the city.

Could it mean anything? We won’t know because no one will ever tell us. It could mean nothing at all. But I want you to think about why is it that we don’t have more board members without “connections”. 

What we should be asking is that every alderman provide a statement in writing about their views on the upcoming zoning proposals since it is important to all voters in all wards to be informed as to where their alderman stands on this issue.

Can’t they just be people who present themselves as concerned citizens wanting to do the right thing and make our city a more equal and harmonious community? Are they using their skills and connections for the betterment of our city or for themselves?

One thought on “SOMERVILLE:BIG LOTS = BIG MONEY FOR DEVELOPERS”

  1. I live by Hodgkins Park and was wondering about that building. I assumed it was a way to bypass zoning laws to make more revenue. This is getting out of control. I think it’s time residents, real residents, start speaking out and asking questions.

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