Somerville Speakup Line:Dr Mouhab Z. Rizkallah’s Email to Alderman Niedergang and Mr. Alan Bingham Regarding Demolition Review Ordinance/Standing against Tyranny and Corruption

Dear Alderman Niedergang and Mr. Alan Bingham (cc all Alderman, Somerville News Weekly, Somerville Matters, ZoneSmart Somerville,

I have reviewed Commissioner Alan Bingham’s letter to the Board of Alderman (below for others to review) and I have found it frustratingly inaccurate.

I am hereby requesting that Mr. Bingham is removed from his position as Historic Commissioner, as he is either intentionally deceptive or incompetent.

The 2 most important points of his letter were 1. His false description of the 1985 Survey and 2. His false description of the proposed ordinance’s effect on property rights.

Alan Bingham stated: “This survey was a drive-by survey basically to initially identify structures on the National Register and perhaps some other interesting structures….”
This is false. I am attaching here Page 2 and Page 4 of the Survey, which clearly shows that in addition to adopting 100 buildings from the National Historic Register, 500 additional buildings were captured as historically significant. I’m sorry, but Mr. Bingham has simply intentionally or unintentionally mis-stated the facts.

Alan Bingham stated: “It should be noted that the demolition review ordinance does not in any way inhibit additions, maintenance or renovation. ”
This is false. In fact, any addition to any house (over 75 years old) would be scrutinized summing over a rolling 5 year period, to determine if the summed additions exceeded the 25% 5-year threshold of surface area affected. This means that houses wanting an addition that affects over 25% surface area (over 5 years) could not do this (even if they have the zoning right to do it) without going through Mr. Alan Bingham. Again, I’m sorry, but Mr. Bingham has simply intentionally or unintentionally mis-stated the facts.

I desperately request that all Alderman search their souls on this proposed ordinance, and realize that this ordinance is corrupt and will be used for corruption. Do not read Mr. Bingham’s description with confidence in its accuracy. Read it with suspicion.

We (Somerville Matters) believe the 1985 Somerville Historic Survey (which was hidden from the Alderman) identifies Somerville’s significant buildings, and the remaining non-significant buildings do not have historical significance enough to seize the civil/ property/ zoning rights of all properties over 75 years old (the whole City!). To do so would be an egregious abuse of power (under the guise of historic preservation, where nothing is historically significant), and would undermine the progress towards this Beautiful City’s needs for additional housing. Make no mistake, the proposed demolition review ordinance will kill the power of the Zoning Overhaul.

Standing against Tyranny and Corruption,

Mouhab Z. Rizkallah


On Wed, Dec 5, 2018 at 3:29 PM Mark replied:

Please see what Alan Bingham has sent to the Board of Aldermen. I think this responds to most of your questions regarding a Historic Property Inventory.

I forwarded Mr. Bingham your emails for his information as the Chair of the HPC and so he might respond. I would encourage you to include him as one of your 200 email recipients.

Mark Niedergang
Ward 5 Alderman
29 Conwell Street
Somerville MA 02143
(617) 629-8033


Alan Bingham’s emailed response:

Demolition Review ordinance
Observations on the draft and addressing some questions raised.

a) The notion that the city should have a listing of all properties in the city that are ‘significant’ historically may seem like a useful concept. Frankly, it would be an asset to the city, but is not practical given the low demand and high cost.
There seems to be a lack of understanding of what is ‘significant’, and what should be preserved and how any such preservation is accomplished. I hope to clarify.

· A property may be designated ‘significant’ for architectural reasons in its own right or as part of a group of dwellings. It can also be considered ‘significant’ for cultural and societal reasons, or both. It may also be one of the few remaining examples of that architecture in the city.
· ‘Significant’ can apply to worker’s cottages as well as grand homes and commercial structures. ‘Significance’ relates to the context of the structure in the greater mosaic of the city’s architectural history.
· ‘Significant’ can also apply to a structure that has a significance to the social and/or cultural history of the city.
· ‘Significance’ is determined using the guidelines of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. ‘Significance’ requires research unto the history of the structure for its contribution to society as well as its architectural value. So this means more than a simple drive-by survey which will not deliver this information. The 1985 survey that has been referenced by some parties was a small scale study of a limited extent (about 16% of the city) for the purposes of rapidly identifying potential properties for local historic district designation.
· If a structure is determined ‘Significant’ then the next step in the process is a determination of whether it should be ‘Preferably preserved’, or not.
· If not then a demolition permit can be issued by ISD without delay.
· If determined ‘Preferably preserved’ the next step is to determine what that means for the structure in question. It can vary from a complete preservation order (viz – the post office in Union Square) to photographic and sketch images placed into archives, and allowing the whole structure to be demolished (viz – 227-229 Cedar + 17 Murdock + 21-25 Murdock and also the 1920 additions to the Somerville High School to enable the construction of the new school). Between these two parameters is considered ‘preferably preserved’. In some cases, artifacts may be preserved from the structure (viz – Lion’s head artifacts from Homan’s Building). Preserving the (sketches and photo) images has been the most frequently applied measure to enable the preservation of history while allowing growth and community use.
· Whenever a structure is deemed either ‘significant’ or ‘preferably preserved’ there must be findings recorded as to why, and these must follow the guidelines of the Department of the Interior. This eliminates subjective opinions and supports determinations based on accepted criteria.
· The SHPC has delegated authority to the city planners to allow demolition of sheds and concrete block garages, as well as chain link fences, in the city without them coming before the commission. They are deemed to have no historic significance and are invariably designated ‘not significant’ by the commission. As a result 12 Concrete Block garages have been approved for demolition by staff in this 11 month period that did not come to the SHPC for deliberation.

b) Why not do a full inventory up-front?
· Cost is prohibitive. A calculation that has been published indicates a cost to the city of over $3 million even when 25% of the structures have been excluded as not fitting base criteria.
· Approximately only 0.00145% of all city structures come before the commission annually so there seems to be no compelling reason to expend scarce city resources for a city wide survey.
· Even if there was a survey, every property that the survey thought to be ‘Significant’ would still need to come before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to be designated ‘Significant’. This is required under the ordinance. Staff would need prepare the schedule and recommendations. This cost is excluded in all costing presented to-date (i.e. the $3+million estimate). This is an extra work load.
· An average of less than 2 properties come before the HPC monthly for determination of ‘significance’. So at a maximum of 24 per annum out of more than 16,500, it is hard if not impossible to justify.
· Any applicant for a demolition permit to ISD is referred to the city planning department where they are advised of any limitations and the process. There are no surprises under this process for developers or owners, and it is seamless and transparent from ISD, through planning and to the HPC.

c) The 1985 survey was done now 38 years ago and is not to the criteria of the Secretary of the Interior. This survey was a drive-by survey basically to initially identify structures on the National Register and perhaps some other interesting structures with the intent of creating Local Historic Districts. It was incomplete and subjective, however, the structures identified were mostly then designated Local Historic Districts. Also, this drive-by survey does not consider social or cultural significance nor any changes in the intervening 38 years, (e.g., should the building on Broadway where President Obama lived in Somerville while he was going to Harvard be included). The remainder of the structures in the city (around 15,900) were not surveyed, just those on the National register and those that had kerb appeal to the surveyors.

In essence the survey was incomplete in context and scope. The scope did not consider the criteria for either ‘significant’ or ‘Preferably preserved’ and was concerned with identifying potential Local Historic Districts. It was not the true and faithful survey that is required, but did help in establishing many local historic districts.

d) Why do Serial and Partial Demolition matter?
· Serial demolition has become the norm for applicants to gradually demolish and rebuild while avoiding a demolition permit. The serial demolition clause in the draft does not prohibit serial demolition but seeks to enable the city to manage it appropriately. Frequently, many homeowners want to attack a large rehabilitation or expansion issue in stages for financial or other reasons, which is both acceptable and usual. The serial clause does not inhibit this, however, it does mean that the applicant should disclose their full intent up-front to ISD, planning and the HPC. The serial demolition clause will dissuade developers from gaming the ISD / city. The HPC is a consultative body and continually provides useful inputs to homeowners on how to preserve the historic character of their homes while renovating.

· Partial Demolition is where a substantial portion of a structure is to be demolished that represents over 25% of the whole structure. This can be calculated in the exterior elevations or volume. This does not preclude an applicant from such demolition but does seek to enable the city to manage it appropriately through ISD, planning, and HPC. For example, the demolition and subsequent rebuild of the building on the corner of Highland and Grove would have required a permit under these changes.

· It should be noted that while these clauses only apply to non-LHD structures, the structure presented in the application may be one of ‘significance’ to the city and not at that time designated for protection in any form. An example of this was, again the central post office in Union Square (which was not a LHD) and which was under threat but was spared by the intervention and urgent attention of Alderman White.

· It should be noted that the demolition review ordinance does not in any way inhibit additions, maintenance or renovation. Minor projects as noted in clause 2.10.5 include the ability to demolish and add under circumstances outlined without having to come before planning or HPC and can be accomplished with a Building Certificate direct from ISD.

e) Demolition Delay Period extended to 24 months maximum. The delay period is to enable the applicant and the city to work together to develop a compromise. The current 9 months has been considered by a number a developers as a simple ‘cost of doing business’ and they have indicated that they will just ‘wait out the 9 months and then tear down the structure anyway’. This is uncontrolled development and this attitude has prompted other cities to extend their delay period as well.

The argument that the developer puts financing at risk is a bogus objection unless it comes from an incompetent business person. The professional developers that come before the HPC all have contingency clauses in their P&S contracts to enable them to rescind the contract if they cannot redevelop the site. They do their due diligence which is invariably required by any financing body. Financing does not kick in until a contract is formalized and that is usually post HPC approval to demolish and ISD issuance of a demolition permit.

The 24 months maximum gives the HPC time to negotiate a compromise with the applicant and develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) as to what will happen at the site. Generally this only takes a few months and does not hold up projects, as few are ‘shovel ready’ at day 1.

The draft ordinance also has provision to accelerate the above process. This is Clause 7.3. It is also important because the SHPC can reach a point in discussions where proceeding without unnecessary delay makes sense. Extending the delay period to a maximum of 24 months and adding a clause to accelerate the end of the delay period are the two tools that go hand-in-hand for better management.

In order to clarify a misconception, the Demolition Review Ordinance does not apply in any way to any structure in the city that is designated as a Local Historic District (LHD). The Demolition Review ordinance only applies to structures that are NOT LHDs. There is no overlap.

Further, structures may be classified under the National Register, the State Register and also the register in our city. Because a structure is classified under one register does not mean it is necessarily classified under others.

Alan Bingham


Alan Bingham emailed resonse:

Dear Sir,
RE: Your email.
In order to put perspective on the 1985 report you will notice that it was prepared by the ‘Historic District Study Committee’. Their charter was well articulated in the document and that was to identify properties that could be designated Local Historic Districts. They collected over 1000 photos and, as you point out, identified some 500 structures. 100 or so of these are from the National Register records according to the study. Many of these properties were subsequently designated as Local Historic Districts.

The study makes no mention of the remaining 15,900 (approximately) structures that this study did not identify. It is these structures that are currently subject to demolition review if an application for demolition is made. The general demolition ordinance (current and in draft) is not in the realm of this 1985 study and was not included. (I do not know why). I have not made any attempt to deceive anyone on this (as you accuse), the 1985 is available to all to read so it would not be at all prudent to attempt to misrepresent it in any way. I am sorry that you take this unnecessary accusatory position.

The demolition review does not prohibit any additions, not does it prohibit renovations. It merely requires the applicant to present any changes before proceeding if a demolition is requested. Many renovation projects are now included under the draft ordinance in the clause ‘Minor Projects’. If you check the updated ordinance draft you will note two items which I which I would like to draw your attention. Firstly, the amount of demolition of the structure is up to 50% and not 25% (as you state). Secondly, the draft ordinance changes the historic time line for consideration from 75 years to 50 years (as you state), thereby excluding many structures.

To help you understand the process — a structure may be considered ‘significant’ according to the criteria of the Secretary of the Interior by the commission. It may then be considered to be what is termed ‘preferably preserved’. This ‘preferably preserved’ finding (once again under the criteria of the Secretary of the Interior) could have a range of implications. It could be considered ‘significant’ but not ‘preferably preserved’ and as such could be demolished. If ‘preferably preserved’ than a range of options applies. The range is between a full preservation and simply a photographic and sketch documentation with these documents and images being archived and the building demolished. In some cases, artifacts are removed and preserved fo subsequent use in memorialization. (The iron structures in Assembly Square and the more recent Lion’s Head from the Homan’s Building, which will soon be demolished, are examples). Sometimes the full preservation means simply moving the structure as has happened in the city. I hope this simply explains the functions of the demolition review to you. The commission works with applicants towards a mutually acceptable resolution. If you come to a commission meeting (they are public) you will see this in person.

The city planners (though I speak for them on a non-official basis) and the commission are not anti-development and do act as a consultative body providing advice and assistance where appropriate. There is no egregious use of power and no attempt to deny rights to any citizen in the city as you suggest. On the contrary, I would suggest that the city planners and commission are pro development as per the SomerVision plan. There is no conflict between historic preservation and the growth of housing – including affordable housing of which we have a dire need.

Finally, nothing has been hidden from anyone and the inference that this 1985 report on Local Historic Districts was hidden from aldermen is without basis. It is freely available and was the start of the city’s Local Historic District preservation program. Please appreciate that a structure can be considered ‘significant’ even if it was not in a Local Historic District report executed in 1985. In the intervening period the city initiated the current Demolition Review ordinance which has been in effect now for over a decade. The Demolition Review and Local Historic District ordinances are different, address different structures and have different scope. I am not mis-stating facts and am surprised and disappointed that you would suggest this.

Alan Bingham

2 thoughts on “Somerville Speakup Line:Dr Mouhab Z. Rizkallah’s Email to Alderman Niedergang and Mr. Alan Bingham Regarding Demolition Review Ordinance/Standing against Tyranny and Corruption”

  1. Property owners in Somerville should organize. The city is usurping private property owners rights, and putting in place ordinances they are contrary to the greater good of housing for all people. Their ideas run contrary to the interests of their constituents and no matter how much negative feedback, written objections, they will not reconsider what the people want. They intend to change Somerville – not for the better. To continually take the position that somerville is too dense flys in the face of everyone seeing Somerville as a desirable place to live. The proposed zoning will not result in adding more housing – to the contrary.

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