The Somerville News Weekly
The ongoing debate in your paper regarding the proposed update to the Demolition Review ordinance has become emotional and doesn’t discuss the reality of the updates proposed.
The reason for the update is primarily to clarify the language in the ordinance, which in the current version is ambiguous and confusing. Somerville has had the current demolition review ordinance since 2003. There are several changes, mainly focused on clarification but also changes to the eligibility period for review from 50 years to 75 years, meaning fewer structures will be reviewed.
The other main change is the extension of a demolition delay period from the current 9 months to 24 months. Why this important is several fold. There is a reality of how long it takes to preserve, possibly move a historic structure to another location if a development is to take place. Additionally, many developers see the 9 month delay period as irrelevant because they simply put a tenant into a building for the period, do not work with the city, and simply (to use their own words) ‘wait out the period’. The upshot is that the period needs be extended to fulfill its purpose. However, with that said, the new draft also has a clause that enables acceleration of the review process and reduction of any delay period, so the period extension only applies where it is needed and not in every case.
The historic commission purview is only for the architectural and societal merit of a structure to determine if it is significant and worthy of a preferably preserved designation. The commission is not engaged in what would replace a structure post demolition, that is the task of zoning, not historic preservation. The Demolition Review is not concerned with replacements, just the structure that exists.
And preferably preserved can mean anything from a full preservation on the structure, to moving it to another location, to simply documenting and memorializing it photographically into the city archives. This is precisely what happens in most instances. It may also mean an artifact or information on the history of the site be retained on site (think Assembly Square or Maxwells Green).
The commission is comprised of architects, architectural historians, contractors, realtors, architects and citizens. All meeting are held in public consistent with the Open Meeting Laws. All meetings are advertised and public comments are asked for in all applications as a matter of process. The commissions provides advice and help to applicants and is not an arbitrary body but rather a consultative one.
It is not now and has never been the intent of the commission to place Somerville into a time capsule. This is a growth city and the commission sees a community responsibility to preserve that part of its architectural history that is important for future generations and for the community in general. The reality is that many ore applications for demolition go to demolition and are preserved in documented form.
Somerville is a city with a rich history and a richness of architecture. It is also fully built out so new developments must, by necessity, be built of existing sites. Hence a demolition review. Luckily, we have many sites that are prime for redevelopment. This means we can have both thoughtful preservation and development. This is the intent of the city, and also it seems to me, the community in general.
I trust this clears up some of the mis-information and confusion regarding both the Commission and the revised ordinance.