Demolition review ordinance, Testifying about the Real Estate Transfer Fee
In this issue:
• Public Hearing on the Administration’s proposed revision of Demolition Review Ordinance, Monday July 9, 6 PM, City Hall
• Public Hearing on Union Square Neighborhood Council’s application for designation by the City as the neighborhood council for Union Square, Monday, July 9, 6:45 PM, City Hall
• 2nd Neighborhood meeting about development of 31-35 Richardson Street, Monday July 16, 6:30 PM, Visiting Nurse Assoc, 259 Lowell Street, 3rd Floor Community Room
• Neighborhood meeting on 50-54 Murdock St proposal for 10 units on large vacant lot, Tuesday July 17, 6:30 PM, Center for Arts at the Armory, Room Not 2B (2nd floor)
• Short Term Rentals (such as AirBNB) community discussion meeting, Thursday July 19, 6-8 PM, Argenziano School Cafeteria, 290 Washington Street
•Real Estate Transfer Fee Home Rule Petition moves forward, reported out favorably by Joint Committee on Revenue in State Legislature
• Board of Aldermen (BOA) approves Fiscal Year 2019 City Budget
Public Hearing on the Administration’s proposed revision of Demolition Review Ordinance, Monday July 9, 6 PM, City Hall
If you care about preserving historic buildings in Somerville, you may find this interesting, and if you care a lot, I encourage you to speak out or write to the Board of Aldermen (BOA) about the changes that we are considering to the ordinance that regulates demolition of old buildings. Public testimony at the hearing will be limited to two minutes per person. Written testimony may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
The Administration and BOA have been working on revising this ordinance for over a year now. Despite three well-advertised public meetings in the spring of 2017 and several extensive public discussions in the BOA Legislative Matters Committee last fall and winter, there did not seem to be any public interest or concern until a few months ago. Recently, we have received a bunch of emails from homeowners with reasonable concerns about the partial and serial demolition provisions in the proposed new ordinance. These are issues which the Administration and BOA have already been grappling with, and I am certain that we will make substantial changes to what the Administration initially proposed to correct the lack of clarity and overreach in the partial and serial demolition proposals. I also have concerns about several other key Administration proposals, such as exempting all City-owned buildings. The BOA will continue to deliberate on how to revise the current ordinance to strengthen it and make the process work better for all in September.
My own view is that the biggest problem with the current ordinance is that the nine month demolition delay period is way too short. It is seen by most developers as simply part of the cost of doing business in the hot Somerville real estate market, and does not deter them from demolishing a building after waiting the nine months. A short delay also does not give much leverage to the Historic Preservation Commission and City Planning Staff in negotiating to preserve all or part of a building, or to create a robust historical record and, in some cases, a public exhibit. I will certainly be supporting the 24-month delay, and probably for commercial buildings as well as residential buildings, but there is still much discussion and debate to come.
Here is some background information for those who are interested. The City’s Demolition Review Ordinance has been in effect since 2003 and currently regulates the demolition of structures 50 years of age or older. Currently, structures in Somerville may be protected from demolition by one of two means: Local Historic District designation (which can prevent demolition) or Demolition Review (which can only delay demolition while all parties explore mutually agreeable and voluntary alternatives to demolition).
Over 140 Massachusetts communities have approved demolition review ordinances. When a structure is proposed to be demolished, these ordinances allow a local Historic Preservation Commission to determine if the structure is important to a community’s history and culture and therefore subject it to a demolition review & delay period.
After three open, public community meetings in the spring of 2017 involving the City Planning Department and the Historic Preservation Commission, the Administration proposed changes to the existing Demolition Review ordinance, including:
• developing an ordinance that establishes a more straightforward process, is easier to read, and includes clear definitions;
• extending the review period from 9 months to either 12 or 24 months depending on whether the property is residential (24) or commercial (12);
• clarifying the circumstances where a property is subject to demolition review, by including partial demolition (demolition of 25% or more of a property) and serial demolition (demolition over a period of time);
• providing an exception from the review of partial demolition for minor projects (for example, projects to add a dormer or porch);
• requiring earlier and broader notification of abutters during the review process;
• raising the building age trigger from 50 to 75 years;
• expanding the list of exempt areas (currently Assembly Square and Innerbelt), to also include portions of Brickbottom, Boynton Yards, the development blocks in Union Square, and the Twin City mall; and,
• exempting city-owned structures, but subjecting them to a nonbinding review by the Historic Preservation Commission.
To review the draft ordinance and related materials, including a memo by Planning Director George Proakis that gives the rationale for the Administration’s proposed changes, please visit www.somervillema.gov/dro.
For an example of a good outcome from the demo review process, stop by the Maxwell’s Green green at the end of the Community Path by Lowell Street and look at the museum-quality exhibit that shows the history of the factory that was on that site.
Public Hearing on Union Square Neighborhood Council’s application for designation by the City as the neighborhood council for Union Square, Monday, July 9, 6:45 PM, City Hall
(Thanks to Ward 3 Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen and Alderman-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch for their newsletter write-ups on this topic and for the discussions I have had with them about it.)
To kick off this Public Hearing, USNC leaders will give a brief overview on their formation process and current work, and explain why they believe they are worthy of designation by the City. Public testimony will be limited to two minutes per person. Written testimony may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. As I expect that deliberation and possibly a vote will occur at this meeting, members of the public are encouraged to submit written testimony before the Public Hearing, but written testimony for the record will be accepted at any time.
Responsibilities of the designated neighborhood council will include negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the Union Square Master Developer, Union Square Station Associates (US2), as well as providing a representative voice for the neighborhood in matters related to Union Square projects before City departments, boards, and commissions. To review the USNC’s application documents— as well as the new ordinance, passed on June 28, that describes the designation process— visit www.somervillema.gov/usnc.
Planning for the redevelopment of Union Square has already been a long process, with a lot more to go. There has been extensive community involvement and input but there is also continuing concern in the community about the shape the redevelopment will take and the community’s relationship with US2. A key issue for many in Union Square is negotiations with US2 for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). This is important because significant community involvement and support is essential for the success of this enormous and complex redevelopment project. Designation of the USNC would allow CBA negotiations to begin.
With this process, the Union Square neighborhood is pioneering a new model of community involvement and power in local governance. The idea is that a neighborhood group — selected democratically by neighborhood residents — will negotiate with the master developer US2 to advocate for community benefits (which might include design decisions, in-kind benefits such as a community center, and possibly even direct financial payments). The neighborhood council will also work with neighborhood residents, business owners and workers to determine priorities and how benefits will get allocated. Independent bodies like a neighborhood council can do some things that municipal bodies can’t do, so it’s potentially a powerful tool for neighborhood investment.
This is NOT just a Union Square issue. Of particular importance for those of us who live in Ward 5 (and some other areas of the City), what’s happening in Union Square may serve as a model for what happens around other coming Green Line Extension (GLX) stations. With GLX stations slated for Lowell Street/Magoun Square and Ball Square in 2021, many Ward 5 residents may soon be faced with the challenges and opportunities that large scale redevelopment presents.
2nd Neighborhood meeting about development of 31-35 Richardson Street, Monday July 16, 6:30 PM, Visiting Nurse Association, 259 Lowell Street, 3rd Floor Community Room
If you are not familiar with the lovely and unique little Magoun Square residential neighborhood, next time you are in the area swing by the intersection of Hinckley and Richardson Streets where this property sits. (Hinckley runs into Broadway by the Dunkin Donuts; Richardson runs into Lowell a little before Medford Street and Magoun Square.) As you can see in the photo (but it really doesn’t do it justice) there is a gorgeous landscaped open space (about 5,660 square feet) that has been lovingly cared for by previous owners of the property.
After discussions with the owner/developer and City officials, an appraisal and other due diligence, City officials asked the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), Somerville’s non-profit affordable housing developer, to consider buying the property as part of the “100 Homes” program, with the goal of adding affordable housing and preserving the open space. SCC developed an initial rough proposal for adding a structure with two units behind/attached to the existing house, one of which would be affordable (in perpetuity) for purchase by a middle-income family. The other two units would be sold at market rate. The other half of the lot would be sold to the City to be used as a passive public open space.
At the first neighborhood meeting, attended by three dozen neighbors, there was broad support for this plan but strong opposition from a couple who are immediate abutters and some concerns expressed by other abutters. Most of the concerns have been about noise and disruption from the open space. The height of the additional structure was also an issue. SCC plans to lower the height. Based on experience with other Ward 5 parks and other passive parks in the City (check out the lovely Quincy Street open space half a block from Market Basket) I don’t believe that noise and late-night disruption will be an issue. But some of the neighbors are not convinced and understandably concerned. The good news is that the City would conduct a long, full, robust and thorough process involving a series of neighborhood meetings to work out what form a public open space there would take. The bad news is that there are no guarantees for abutters what the outcome of that process would be, although it seems certain to me that all the neighbors will want to design a park that will not attract late-night or noisy activity.
Last week, the City’s Community Preservation Committee voted a $210,000 grant to the SCC to move this project forward. At the second community meeting on July 16th, the SCC will present more-detailed plans for the two new units and hopefully (I have not gotten a confirmation yet), City officials will be present to discuss the process of designing the open space.
If you are interested, I can email you the SCC’s application to the CPC for the grant, which also has some photos of the lot and a rough schematic for where the new structure would go behind the existing house.
Neighborhood meeting on 50-54 Murdock St proposal for 10 units on large vacant lot, Tuesday July 17, 6:30 PM, Center for Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Ave, Room Not 2B (2nd floor)
This large (15,341 square feet, a huge lot for Ward 5) vacant, green lot at the bend on Murdock Street near Clyde Street in “the Patch” neighborhood is about to go the way of so many of the few remaining vacant lots in Ward 5. The developer’s plan is to build a three-story building with 10 units and 15 parking spaces. I have the plans and can email them to you if you are interested. I have some concerns but am waiting to hear the developer’s presentation and questions from neighbors and the discussion before I come to any conclusions. At the meeting, the developer, Rob Grieco, and his attorney, Adam Dash, will present the plans, speak with neighbors and answer questions.
As residents of the Patch know, there has been an enormous amount of development in that neighborhood, and especially on Murdock Street. There is the 22-unit project at 17-21 Murdock stretching all the way through to 227-229 Cedar Street. That developer just told me they hope to receive their official building permit soon so they can begin construction. There have been a bunch of smaller developments on Murdock in the past few years as well. One bit of good news for Murdock street residents is that there will be a sidewalk on the south side of Murdock, stretching from 17 Murdock, most likely through 39 Murdock and perhaps beyond. One of my asks of the developer of 50-54 Murdock Street will be for them to make a contribution to infrastructure improvement on Murdock Street, in consultation with City officials, perhaps adding to that sidewalk, perhaps something else.
Short Term Rentals (such as AirBNB) community discussion meeting, Thursday July 19, 6-8 PM, Argenziano School Cafeteria, 290 Washington Street
This will be the second of two identical meetings about future regulations for short-term rentals (STRs) in Somerville. City staff will review current short-term rental regulations and then attendees will have a chance to talk with each other and City staff about future regulation options. You can review slides from the first meeting, held on June 14th, and fill out a quick survey on this topic at https://www.somervillema.gov/strs If you can’t make the meeting and have questions or comments, please email the Planning Department staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am also very interested in your thoughts on this topic, so please do email or call me with your concerns and ideas. With over 800 AirBNB listings alone in Somerville (not to mention other platforms), and about half of them entire units (which is actually illegal, but only enforced when there are complaints), this is a major issue and concern. The status quo is untenable, and the Administration has been slow to move despite repeated calls by Aldermen to develop new regulations that correspond to current reality. Cambridge passed STR regulations last fall which took effect in April 2018, and Boston just passed their own set of regulations. The Administration has committed to developing over the summer a draft ordinance for the BOA to consider this fall. This will be in the Legislative Matters Committee, which I Chair, and it will be one of many urgent priorities for the BOA this fall.
Real Estate Transfer Fee Home Rule Petition moves forward, reported out favorably by Joint Committee on Revenue in State Legislature
On May 24, as you probably know, the BOA approved by a 10-0 vote a Home Rule Petition (HRP) for a Real Estate Transfer Fee (RETF). The Mayor signed it immediately and it was sent to the State Legislature for their consideration.
I’m pleased to report that after a Public Hearing before the Joint Committee on Revenue on Wednesday, June 20th, Somerville’s Home Rule Petition was reported favorably out of that committee. As best I understand the process, it will now advance to a secondary committee for further deliberation, and then have to be approved by the Committee on the Third Reading to get to the floor of the Legislature for a vote. Of course, this may not happen this year…or ever. Thank you to our four-member state delegation, all of whom spoke in favor, half-dozen Aldermen, and several dozen members of the public who showed up to speak out and show their support. At the hearing, there were roughly three dozen people in favor and three opposed.
Board of Aldermen (BOA) approves Fiscal Year 2019 City Budget
On June 28, the BOA approved the FY 2019 budget. We spent 48 hours of meeting time in June grinding through the budget and made cuts of $1,132,866 to the Administration’s proposed FY 2019 budget of $241.7 million. That’s about ½ of 1 percent. This will save each property tax payer approximately $40 when we set the new tax rate in November.
This year’s budget is a 3.9% overall increase from the previous year. Much of that increase comes for the Somerville Public Schools, with an increase of 5.99%. I wholeheartedly support the increase in the school budget and also a number of new initiatives in this year’s budget (see below).
Every year, homeowners complain that property taxes have gone up and present an unfair burden, although this year, there were far fewer such complaints than in past years. I am sympathetic to the many senior homeowners on fixed incomes who are now “house rich” and “cash poor.” They are getting squeezed and many are fearful of having to sell their homes and move out of Somerville. This year, with a new City Assessor, Frank Golden, the Administration is finally doing a good job of reaching out to senior homeowners to offer them help and advice on the many opportunities that exist for them to take advantage of special programs to lower their taxes.
Few of the people who complain about increasing property taxes in Somerville seem to be aware that the majority of those increases have gone to the public schools. Over the past decade, the Mayor, working closely with the Superintendent of Schools and School Committee, has increased Somerville’s public school spending dramatically. And it shows: you get what you pay for. Our public schools have moved up from poor/mediocre to excellent, and perhaps the best urban school district in Massachusetts. And Massachusetts has among the best public schools in the nation. So we are blessed. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and one well worth paying for. I am as proud to have been part of this improvement as a School Committee member for eight years as I am of anything I have done in 12 ½ years as an elected official.
The Mayor’s theme in his budget presentation this year was “investing in equity,” a focus that I am enthusiastic about. (Go to https://www.somervillema.gov/fy19budget to see his presentation and all the budget docs) In my view, one of the most important roles of government is to help those who need help the most, and to deal with the many casualties of our hyper-capitalist society.
Off my soapbox and back to the FY 2019 budget now. While I was pleased with the budget, there are some areas of concern that were uncovered by persistent questioning by Aldermen. There seems to be a lot of extra money sloshing around in the Water and Sewer Dept. budget. While this is not necessarily a huge problem since unspent funds go back into “retained earnings,” which are then used for capital projects for sewer and water improvements, one is always worried when budgeting does not accurately reflect expenditures and is not transparent. We also uncovered problems in the way the Department of Public Works (DPW) budgets and spends funds, and with some of the large contracts that DPW has for trash collection, street sweeping, and hiring a private company to clean the High School and Winter Hill Community Innovation School. (I would like to see this contract not renewed and the City add additional unionized custodians to do this work.) We asked for more information on these issues and the Administration did acknowledge our concerns, so I look forward to continued examination and discussion on them in the fall.
New initiatives proposed by the Mayor and supported by the BOA for FY 2019 include more financial support and a staff coordinator for out-of-school time programs, creation of a new Office of Housing Stability with four new staff, more funding for the arts, and additional staffing and funding for traffic calming and safety. I am particularly happy about support for the City’s new Vision Zero initiative to make Somerville streets safer and more accessible for all; guide multimodal transportation, safety policies, programs and projects; and to try to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Somerville.
There are a few things that residents and Aldermen asked for that have not been adequately funded in the budget, such as more soccer and athletic fields, support for recycling in schools, creation and funding of an open space acquisition fund, more funding and staff for urban forestry and tree planting, a “czar” for the war on rats, and funds for the BOA to hire its own legal counsel to represent our positions as the legislative branch of government when there are conflicts with the City Solicitor’s office, which occur frequently. We will be banging away at the Administration on these issues over the next year, trying to get supplemental appropriations for them.
Mark Niedergang, Ward 5 Alderman