Letter to the Editor: Somerville’s Zoning Versions

Dear Sir,

In August the City of Somerville released a new version of the planned zoning, v4.0. Previously, version 3, from January 2019, had been preceded by multiple public meetings as part of the neighborhood planning process to help the city understand what the constituents wanted, and did not want. Building height and massing were major topics of discussion with many visual posters prepared by city staff, and people voted on what they preferred.

But since then, when the people of west Somerville overwhelmingly endorsed a 4 story limit, the city zoning plan (v4.0) has designated Davis Square 5 and 6 stories. Not the 4 endorsed in version 3 of the plan by the people.

Someone in city hall made this decision despite what the people wanted. I do not know why, or who it was that made this dramatic change. I have yet to find anyone outside city planning who thinks 6 stories in Davis Square would be a good idea. In fact, the general consensus is that it would wreck the character of the square. So after (6) years of zoning change incubation the 11th hour changes in V4.0, with a rush to approval raise very serious concerns on process and motives. It is about to be presented to the planning board for approval a month after its release. This was not a transparent change and the usual process of community engagement has been put aside to get these changes through quickly.

Davis is currently zoned for 4 stories and yet it is characterized mostly by 1-3 story buildings with the occasional 4-5. This clearly illustrates that development opportunities abound that have not yet been exploited. It’s easy to visualize two CVS stores (One Davis Square) on top of each other (and this is what 6 stories looks like) as we walk down an overshadowed Elm, Holland or Highland St canyon flanked by 6 story buildings.

The area has been zoned for 4 stories now for years, but there has been little enthusiasm by developers to even go to this height. Why, one wonders, would they go to 6 if they ignored 4. There is more to this than meets the eye.

There is an alarming lack of transparency around this drastic uplift of 50% in height. It would mean 6 stories ‘by right’. Clearly this is aimed at developers and not citizens of west Somerville.

If its tax dollars the city seeks then listen up city officials. In the ½ mile radius from Davis Square the tax extracted is between 20 & 25% of the cities total. And part of this pie is in Cambridge! Already Davis, and surrounds, is carrying a heavy burden.

Davis Square is a precious gem in our city. It is vibrant, has an eclectic culture and is a the main focal nexus for city events. Zoning should enhance this not damage it. We know what up-zoning has done to gentrify and change the essence of Harvard Square. That’s a path we don’t want to follow.

Alan Bingham
30 Day St Somerville

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