By Friends of Cobble Hill
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville/Medford News Weekly belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville/Medford News Weekly, its staff or publishers)
While the much-valued quality-of-life at Cobble Hill Apartments hangs in the balance, representatives of the City of Somerville continue to ignore and avoid important questions asked by Cobble Hill residents. The most glaring common complaint is that city planners, including members of city council, have not explained to anyone’s satisfaction why they intend to build a public safety building contiguous to their residence at 90 Washington Street. Even worse, at no time did the City consult the community before choosing this location. Quite the contrary, the Planning Department leveraged, for the first time, a heavy handed urban renewal tactic known as a Demonstration Plan that legally allows the city to exclude from its decision making any form of public review and comment.
To note: The current housing of our firefighters and police personnel remains inadequate for first responders and there is no question a new facility is long overdue.
However, the question remains – what is the best location for the facility?
Cobble Hill is Somerville’s largest elderly community. Having attended numerous community meetings and having read dozens of resident letters in opposition, I say with authority that Cobble Hill’s residents are unanimous in demanding the City reverse this poorly conceived decision and find an alternate site location due to obvious reasons: Continual loud fire and police sirens in close proximity to their residence, day and night, 24/7. In addition, the city plans to encroach upon a well-cared green landscape that includes tall mature pines which line the perimeter and an unwanted foreseeable intrusion into their otherwise peaceful lifestyle and surroundings.
Somerville’s first ever “Demonstration Plan” created this horrible mistake. It is a novel urban planning tool that gives urban planners unchallenged legal authority to take private land. In this instance, legal authority should not be confused with moral authority. The taking of 3.99 acres of Cobble Hill property also included the taking of 85 Cobble Hill parking spaces, the access driveway behind 84 Washington Street where maintenance supplies are delivered and bi-weekly garbage trucks empty the building dumpster, and the taking of green space pathways that are cherished by residents. All of which suggests a much bigger plan on the horizon at the expense of Cobble Hill residents. In addition, to the changes noted, other plans for the 90 Washington Street parcel includes opening the entire area to many pedestrians, cyclists while installing a public park—But how will this reshape Cobble Hill’s present state? How will the residents be disrupted by the many changes the city plans to impose upon them?
The truth is – City officials have made an unjustifiable mistake in moving forward with a massive $100 million dollar public safety building without input from the citizens of Somerville or the residents of Cobble Hill it will affect most. The residents are vehemently opposed to the safety building project that directly abuts their property. And now, the City is just beginning to learn they are not alone.
What’s the city officials and planners next plan of action?
Thus far, the City’s stealth strategy for building their public safety building isn’t gaining the widespread support they anticipated; it has only served to further anger the residents of Cobble Hill Apartments who are actively pushing back and demanding answers. Over 300 elderly and disabled residents are waiting for answers to questions that were asked of the planning office at city hall.
The December 13 unveiling of the City’s furtive plans made it abundantly clear that Cobble Hill is not alone in their disapproval. Over 100 participants viewed the City’s 90 Washington Street presentation though a Zoom teleconference, a format seemingly chosen to screen out dissention. When the City divided the viewers into eleven city-wide “chat rooms” and the Project Manager turned off the mute controls, strong opposition was voiced. Strongest of all were the messages from the Cobble Hill residents who demanded the City find an alternate location best suited to the size of the proposed safety building which includes a three story garage. According to statements by planners, the building will be 70,000 square feet and house a fleet of 80 vehicles for police and fire personnel.
What about transparency and a fair, inclusive process that includes the community at large?
The Somerville News Weekly filed an official request with the city solicitor’s office for information obtained at the citywide Zoom meeting with respect to the 11 chat rooms previously noted. If only the entire audience had seen the 50+ Cobble Hill residents grouped into their own “chat room” line up to speak into the laptop camera and demand the city drop their plans for 90 Washington Street. Had that happened, the entire discussion that evening would have focused on whether the city’s plans were fair to such a vulnerable community. Instead, chat room topics vacillated between equally important but less urgent considerations such as transit-oriented development, the size and scope of the safety building, the public price tag, and whether 90 Washington is the best location given its location on the GLX Washington Street stop. Once again, we are seeing the City seek to separate residents from each other instead of encouraging collaboration from all in attendance. For instance, if you were among the group of 4 in one of the chat rooms, how did you possibly benefit from your discussion when so much valuable input was not being shared from the 10 additional chat rooms?
As of this writing, the city’s solicitor has not responded to the FOIA – (Freedom of Information Act) despite the relative simplicity of the request. Why has the city solicitor chosen to ignore the request for transcripts and dialogue from those who participated on the Zoom call that are all recorded? Instead of insightful comments, for approximately two hours, we listened to short snippets, much of it taken from previous information found online. Although, one significant highlight was a confirmation from Councilman McLaughlin that he will not approve a bond for the public safety project if Cobble Hill parking is not returned. He also stated he will be participating in the ongoing process and will attend future meetings. Let’s hope he keeps his promise.
My experience and observations of city run meetings of past and present
As a long-time resident of Somerville, I became curious about the many development projects going on across the city and how they have negatively affected our working-class neighborhoods and residents, specifically our elderly. In time, I began to notice a recurring pattern with respect to public meetings being conducted and the decidedly lack of willingness to allow participation among residents and to engage honestly in discussions with elected officials and city planners. Their MO remains persistent, “divide (residents) and conqueror”, create confusion, maintain avoidance, in some cases pitting resident against resident. Also, intentionally avoiding communication with those affected by project, even at times, bullying. During a recent city organized “brown bag lunch” meeting in close proximity to Cobble Hill, I was told by a city planner that I had no business attending the meeting and that city-at-large opinions would not be voiced because we were not residents of Cobble Hill. I reminded the planner that I have been a taxpayer for a number of decades and my contributing to his salary entitles me the right to advocate on behalf of my neighbors at Cobble Hill. And like the residents, at-large citizens of Somerville wish to be included in the process as their concerns are valid and essential for the process to work, both to solve their needs and the needs of our first responders. Had there been a city-wide chat room, the desires of those who wish to defund the police or voice support for a community room without offering an explanation on its specific function, for public kitchens and safe consumption sites, etc., would not have drowned out the responsible voices of the majority.
The city planners also mentioned that PHCS (Powerhouse Community School), and 90 Washington Street, are similar. Unfortunately, a detailed explanation was not provided. The zoom meeting as presented by the planners was as pointless as was the brown bag lunch meeting – of December 8; those who attended were ushered into groups separated from discussion by designated planners who insisted, “This is how it goes”. There was no general meeting led by the director of planning as in past meetings. No elected official stepped forward to provide clarity or answer tricky questions. Separating groups is the new normal now. City planners know how to work the crowd and succeed at nothing but to leave all residents concerned about what else they are keeping from us.
16. Can you share with us examples where community opposition has resulted in the City stopping a project? Your response will speak volumes to the sincerity of the City’s Community Process on December 8th and December 13th.
“Perhaps more telling, the site selection consultant awarded 90 Washington Street a score of 4 out of 5 for not being near a residential community. How is that even possible? Not only does 90 Washington Street abut Cobble Hill Apartments, the largest elderly development in the City, but it stands to negatively impact 300 residents who are largely shut-ins and will not have relief from the disruption when compared to other residential communities where residents frequently come and go for work and leisure”.
Why haven’t the taxpayers been informed of the cost of such a grand undertaking? Although, dated 2019, you can see photos of the site, preliminary and future plans within the link provided:
Within the glossy photos included in the demonstration plan, a larger scale project is planned, resembling Assembly Row, Seaport and areas of Cambridge. It appears as though miles of towering buildings made of glass and steel will soon replace the former sites of factories within the Washington Street/Inner Belt area as they did Assembly Row.
The evolving story of Cobble Hill will continue on Somerville News Weekly with a series of articles as information becomes available. Of course, many residents understand the importance of a new safety building for our first responders. But at what cost? How will it impact the lives of the residents of Cobble Hill? Please get involved and support the residents of Cobble Hill. We must protect our most vulnerable residents from the wrecking ball of so called progress – it will only serve to further harm our working class community. Everything that affects us with regard to development individually, also affects us collectively. This is not just their fight; it’s our fight, too. A city that is open to dialogue is open to balance. A city of full transparency provided to all constituents, can hope to be a city that can also be respected and trusted.