Board of Aldermen
Somerville Redevelopment Authority
93 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA 02143
Dear Mayor Curtatone, Honorable Aldermen, and members of the Redevelopment Authority,
As you know, we are in a critical phase of a multi-year process to develop consensus on our community’s priorities for the future of Union Square and enshrine those priorities in enduring enforcement mechanisms. Over the last several months, copies of those enforcement mechanisms have been released to the public, including:
- Union Square Overlay District Zoning Amendment (February 14, 2017 draft proposed by the Mayor)
- Master Land Disposition Agreement (MLDA) between the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and Union Square Station Associates (US2)
- Covenant Agreement between the City of Somerville and US2
We have reviewed these documents in detail, and we know there is considerable pressure to adopt the Union Square zoning by May 31, 2017 and move forward with the redevelopment process. We are keenly aware that a host of public benefits can only become a reality if we move forward with this package of enforcement mechanisms, and time is of the essence. That said, there remains a critical list of priorities that need to be resolved prior to moving forward, and we wish to express our concerns and recommendations in hopes that you act quickly to address them.
Is this a good deal for Somerville and Union Square?
The overarching question we are most asked is whether this package is a good deal for Somerville and Union Square—specifically:
- Will the financial and benefits of the redevelopment offset the costs?
- Are the expected financial and public benefits reasonably certain to occur?
- Will 2.3 million square feet of new development make Union Square a better place to live and work?
Evaluating the financial and public benefits requires strong analyses. Costs and benefits must be weighed in present value terms to account for the timing of when they will occur. We understand the City of Somerville hired consultants to conduct fiscal impact analyses of the Union Square redevelopment project. The results of these fiscal analyses, as presented by the City, show that the benefits of the development outweigh the costs:
- Benefits: The City estimates developer contributions and payments to the community totaling an estimated $112 million, plus an increase in real estate tax revenue equal to $445 million over the next 30 years—resulting a combined total of $557 million in financial and public benefits.
- Costs: Estimated costs include $94 million in infrastructure improvements and a $50 million payment to the state tied to the Green Line Extension (GLX). Added together, these total $144 million in costs.
Assuming the City’s financial projections are sound—and that the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen have done the due diligence necessary to feel confident in the fiscal estimates—it suggests that the redevelopment of Union Square will result in over $400 million in net positive public benefits over the next 30 years. We caution that the majority of the benefits, including real estate tax proceeds, permitting fees, and other developer contributions, are predicated on full build-out of the development, whereas the costs are upfront. It also remains unclear whether additional costs from increased school enrollment, public safety, and other infrastructure and municipal costs, including dramatic streetscape improvements called for in the Neighborhood Plan, are included in this amount. However, we also recognize that many of these costs have already been planned. For example, Somerville needs to move forward with $64 million in overdue water and sewer upgrades whether Union Square is developed or not, and the $50 million GLX payment is non-negotiable from the state’s perspective. Given these cost realities, we cannot afford to forgo or delay the redevelopment of Union Square.
While we believe it’s time to move forward with the redevelopment of Union Square, we feel it’s important to emphasize that we are relying on the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen to determine that we have not left value “on the table” in negotiating public benefits with US2. Evidently, we’re told to trust the analysis of a city-hired consultant who has seen confidential pro forma information supplied by US2 to evaluate the project’s overall feasibility and help the city position its request for developer contributions for infrastructure and community needs. How do we know US2’s projected margin isn’t inappropriate? We ask these questions because there are critical public benefits that need to be included in the redevelopment plan, and it’s not an acceptable strategy for City leaders to say that these benefits can only become a reality if they are successfully included in a negotiated community benefit agreement (CBA) between US2 and a yet-to-be-formed Union Square Neighborhood Council. As a result, we ask you to amend the zoning proposal, MLDA, and Covenant Agreement to address our outstanding concerns and recommendations, which are described below.
Prioritized Concerns and Recommendations
Our prioritized list of recommended changes to these enforcement mechanisms are below, and you can find our detailed analysis and explanations in Attachment A: Union Square Neighbors Public Benefits Analysis.
1. Commercial Development
- Amend the zoning ordinance proposal, the Covenant Agreement, and/or the MLDA to enforce the phasing of commercial and residential land use mix and development.
2. Open Space
- Require that the size of the Neighborhood Park required under the Coordinated Development Special Permit be at least 1.5 acres.
- Require public ownership of new civic space on publicly owned land.
3. Building Heights
- Amend the zoning ordinance proposal to set a maximum height for building stories above ground level that would result in an overall height limit of 80-85 feet on the D6 parcel.
4. Indoor Civic Space
- Amend the Covenant Agreement and/or MLDA to include a provision that requires inclusion of an indoor, publicly accessible, flexibly programmed civic indoor space(s) that totals at least 25,000 square feet, of which at least 10,000 square feet shall be a multi-functional gymnasium/recreation room.
5. Family Sized Housing
- Amend the zoning ordinance proposal to increase the percentage of affordable housing units that must be at least three bedrooms from at least 10% to at least 20%; and require that at least 40% of affordable housing units must have two bedrooms.
- Amend the Covenant Agreement to require that 10% of market rate housing units must have three or more bedrooms and 30% of market rate units must have two bedrooms.
6. Off-Site Affordable Housing
- Amend the zoning ordinance proposal to state that market rate units within the USOD cannot receive their Certificate of Occupancy until all inclusionary units, whether provided on-site or off-site, receive their Certificate of Occupancy.
7. Homeownership Opportunities
- Amend the Covenant Agreement between the City of Somerville and US2 to require that not less that 20% of all new units created on the development blocks be offered for sale instead of rented as apartments.
- Amend zoning ordinance proposal by requiring that any increase in the 1,500 cap on the number of USOD parking spaces require a special permit and be granted only if a Transportation Management Agency (TMA) has been constituted and determines that the only recourse for addressing the unmet needs for parking is to create more parking.
Thank you again for the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed Union Square redevelopment enforcement mechanisms, including the zoning proposal, MLDA, and Covenant Agreement. If we can be helpful in any way, please feel free to reach out to us. We would be happy to expand upon our comments and/or provide suggested language for amendments.
Rob Buchanan, Chairperson
Union Square Neighbors
Attachment: Union Square Public Benefits Analysis