Somerville/Medford News Weekly Speakup Line: Sadly at Somerville City Hall, the seniors always come last! RE: 90 Washington St. City Plan

Dear Billy T and Somerville/Medford News Weekly Speakup Line,

Our letter to Mayor Ballantyne:

Dear Mayor Ballantyne:

It seems to me Cobble Hill’s residents are locked into parallel conversations with your Administration when discussing our opposition to the city’s plans for 90 Washington Street. Perhaps this confusion is intentional. That would certainly explain the frequency in which our exchanges miss important touchpoints when we talk about the same subjects.

As it stands today, no one living at Cobble Hill can reconcile why the city took away our parking lot, alleyway, landscaped berm, and a grove of trees. For 40 years the residents of Cobble Hill have relied on these important residential amenities for their quality-of-life. And now we are told the city is forming a Citizen Advisory Committee to determine how best to use Cobble Hill’s former land. We take this as tacit proof the city had no compelling reason to take our residential assets in the first place.

To date, I have circulated dozens of Cobble Hill resident letters in opposition to the city’s plans for 90 Washington Street. Revealingly, all have gone unanswered even as the city recently concluded their extended Envisioning 90 Washington Street community process. Separately, when residents had the confidence to stand up and politely ask critical questions at your public “listening” events, the responses they received were textbook “word speak.” Examples of this included multiple references to there being “unanimous City Council support for the Demonstration Plan” or “an independent site selection study chose 90 Washington St” or “this has been litigated so that won’t be revisited” and lastly “if we don’t build a PSB, we can’t move forward with other plans for the site.”

In retrospect, none of these responses were informative answers to the specific questions that were asked. They were likely designed to sidestep controversy and silence questions about the legitimacy of the flawed site selection study.

In the below, I have assembled multiple instances where the information Cobble Hill received from your Administration was far less than what we now know to be true. Our discoveries should end the falsehood that the city’s justifications for taking Cobble Hill’s assets – and forcing a noise producing Public Safety Building onto our community – are beyond reproach.

What We Were Told: The 2018 Weston & Sampson Site Selection Study fully justified the City’s public taking of 90 Washington Street over five other potential land parcels.
The Reality:
The city received a land appraisal of $8,745,000 for 90 Washington Street on March 21, 2018. Three months later, the Weston & Sampson report claimed 90 Washington Street would cost the city only $4,671,900. The underreporting of $4,073,100 allowed 90 Washington Street to receive higher scoring points in the selection process.
The Weston & Sampson Site Selection study was specific in identifying the city’s need to locate a land parcel between 18,000 and 30,000 SQ FT to build a Public Safety Building. The city grossly overreached, and overpaid, by taking 173,803 SQ FT including Cobble Hill’s green space, parking lot, a grove of mature trees, and the alleyway behind 84 Washington Street.
The Weston & Sampson Site Selection Study awarded 90 Washington Street 4 out of 5 points for not being near a residential area. Absent in the report was any mention that Cobble Hill Apartments is contiguous to 90 Washington Street. Cobble Hill is the largest elderly community in Somerville and arguably the most fragile of all residential areas that would be disrupted by siren disturbances.
The Weston & Sampson Site Selection study awarded 90 Washington Street 4 out of 10 points for not having known environmental impacts. The McPhail Associates environmental study dated September 19, 2018, confirmed that in 2012, hazardous materials were found at 90 Washington Street and were reported to DEP. The same McPhail Associates report confirmed 90 Washington Street had “exceedences” such as “chlorobenzene, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, SVOCs (2,4-dinitrotoluene and 1,4 dichlorobenzene), and PCBs.” All are highly toxic soil contaminants that require removal.

What We Were Told: The reason City Council voted in 2019 to take 90 Washington Street was for the purpose of eradicating blight.

The Reality:
In 2019, the city used its imminent domain powers to assume ownership of a vacant shopping center at 90 Washington Street. The city also took ownership of Cobble Hill Apartments’ well-manicured parking lot, back alleyway, landscaped berm, and 84 mature trees.

What We Were Told: The proposed Public Safety Building at 90 Washington Street will not disturb the peaceful enjoyment of the 300 residents of Cobble Hill Apartments. Siren noise can be mitigated with synchronized traffic light controls.
The Reality:
The city anticipates Engine #3 will make an average of 6.2 trips per day or 2,263 annual trips. The city has yet to provide estimates of the number of siren-producing police trips.

Synchronizing traffic light controls on Washington Street will not assure emergency vehicle passage through heavy traffic. Sirens will be required every time an engine on call leaves the station so that traffic flow will be alerted of approaching emergency vehicles.

What We Were Told: The Mayor is forming a Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) to decide the best uses for 90 Washington St. The CAC will be comprised of 12-members of which 8 will be residents, 2 neighborhood businesses and 2 city councilors.
The Reality:
In 2019 the city took 143,804 SQ FT more in land than was required to build a PSB. Of the additional land, this included Cobble Hill Apartments’ parking lot, alleyway, berm and mature trees.

The city’s development strategy for 90 Washington Street changed somewhat in 2022 after the Administration could not be assured of a City Council supermajority to approve the $102 Million bond to achieve their plans.

The 2018 Demonstration Plan projected the 2021 costs to clear & develop the site for the PSB to be between $63.2 and $82.5 Million. Shifting political priorities and dramatic covid increases in interest rates/inflation have also contributed to the delays resulting from updated “sticker shock”.

The Citizen Advisory Committee has been tasked with finding a new development path forward as long as the final plans include a Public Safety Building at 90 Washington Street.

Looking ahead, several Cobble Hill residents have applied to be members of the Citizen Advisory Committee. Others will continue to ask important questions by circulating resident letters. It remains our sincere hope a well-informed public will recognize the extent of this overreach and work to reverse the negative impact this terrible mistake will have on the residents of Cobble Hill.

Lastly, parallel conversations are never productive. As a first step in reestablishing communications, it would be helpful if others will respond to the many letters that have been previously circulated. This will confirm for us that the city is actually listening and cares.

Respectfully,

Evelyn Ortiz

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