Somerville Planning Board
c/o George Proakis
Planning Director, OSPCD
93 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA 02143
Dear Members of the Planning Board,
Thank you for the opportunity to provide written feedback on the revised version of the Union Square Neighborhood Plan. We agree with much of the public testimony given at last week's hearing in support of the plan and greatly appreciate the significant efforts staff within OSPCD have made in guiding the plan’s creation and responding to feedback.
Union Square Neighbors (USN) has advocated for the creation of a master plan for Union Square for several years, and we havecollectively spent hundreds of hours analyzing the initial draft of the Neighborhood Plan in an effort to help create the best possible plan for the future of our neighborhood. While we would have preferred more time to review and understand the revised plan, we support adoption of the Neighborhood Plan as part of a strategy to demonstrate to MassDOT that Union Square is ready and able to maximize the economic benefits of the GLX.
Overall, the Neighborhood Plan is truly exceptional at capturing and articulating the goals, aspirations and vision of the community. Similar plans that have been created in other places are often less successful at clearly reflecting the unique character of the people it is being created for, and this plan should be commended for its efforts to include this and to reflect the diverse range of feedback received.
Following the release of the initial draft of the plan in October 2015, USN submitted a detailed letter commenting on the plan's contents and recommending a series of improvements and clarifications. We have not had a chance to review the revised draft of the plan in the same level of detail, however we would like to submit for your consideration our analysis (or “Report Card”) of how well the revised version addresses the recommendations we made on the earlier draft of the Neighborhood Plan. (See attachment entitled, “Union Square Neighborhood Plan – Report Card.”) Our general feedback on the revised Neighborhood Plan is summarized below:
· Translating a Vision into specific Planning Recommendations: The written aspirations in the plan have been improved significantly from the draft, becoming more balanced and complete. Where the plan is not yet as successful as it could be is in translating the written goals and aspirations into physical guidelines for development, particularly for the so-called 'D' blocks. Throughout the process of creating the plan, relatively few D-block alternatives were evaluated, and it appears that almost no updates to plans or building diagrams have been made based on feedback received on the previous draft. Though we are generally pleased with the streetscape designs included in the plan, there remains work to do to shape buildings and public spaces into exceptional places. Given this, we will advocate for zoning in Union Square that preserves the opportunity for public input and the flexibility for the Planning Board to weigh this in guiding the design of buildings and public spaces during the approvals process.
· Transportation Infrastructure and Mobility Management: Our previous comments on the plan articulated why a transportation analysis is important. While we agree with the goals described in the Neighborhood Plan are right, we are extremely concerned about the lack of transportation analysis which is critical to the feasibility and viability of the plan and its development goals. While we generally support lowering parking to the extent possible, there are too few specifics in the plan on parking. We recommend that that a complete transportation analysis be conducted and added to the plan.
· Commercial Space as a First Priority: We were concerned about what appeared to be a largely residential development being shown on the D2 block, and this is unchanged from the prior version. While we generally agree with the overall commercial/residential mix in the updated plan, we believe building commercial space during the first phase is critical, and we will advocate for this as part of the development review process.
· Open/Green Space: The initial draft proposed approximately 10 acres of open space in Union Square. The Union Square Civic Advisory Committee had recommended 20.4 acres, and we agreed. The updated version of the plan includes a recommendation for 15.3 acres, but a strategy for achieving only 12.3 acres, stating that a plan to achieve other 3 acres is to be determined. (We note that the updated plan has significantly improved open space planning in Boynton Yards and Grand Junction/Milk Square). While the plan recommends 15 percent open space requirement for development across Union Square and Boynton Yards, a 20 percent requirement would result in the additional 3 acres the plan also recommends. We suggest this be noted in the plan and evaluated during zoning process.
· Family Housing as a Priority: We recommended in our earlier comments that the average unit size be increased and planning for housing typologies such as townhouse and courtyard housing types that are attractive for families be added. It appears the average unit size has increased, but the housing types we recommended do not appear to be included. There also does not appear to be a recommendation for proportion of larger unit sizes. Careful attention will need to be paid to make sure revised zoning ordinances requires and/or incentivizes (as appropriate) housing suitable for families.
· Human Scaled Design: Very few changes were made to physical plans which are apparently intended to serve as basis for development guidelines. Our previous letter included detailed recommendations for clarifications and improvements, and our members also submitted specific comments through the online comment tool.
o We appreciate that the revised version notes the importance of views from Prospect Hill Park, but wish a more detailed study had been done of proposed allowable building heights in relation to it. This will need to be done in the future if allowable heights are proposed to be increased.
o We also appreciate the recommendation to modify allowable heights along Washington Street.
o We recommend that language in the plan be modified to describe massing shown as a potential outcome rather than implying this is recommended or preferred.
· Public and Civic Buildings: This version of the Neighborhood Plan appears to include even less on civic space than the initial draft, which is a major shortcoming. D1, the so-called “Civic Block” in the Union Square Revitalization Plan and Master Developer Request for Qualifications, has no public or civic uses, such as branch library, community or recreation center, teen center, etc. A true neighborhood plan is not complete without planning for the civic and public buildings that are critical to making a complete neighborhood. We have made this point time and again and will continue to do so.
· Scattered Site Developments: We appreciate that the development potential for sites outside D blocks in Union Square (pp. 196-201) has been evaluated. However, what is shown has never been seen by the public before. Accordingly, these should not be described as recommended or preferred.
· Implementation Plan: We appreciate the implementation table (p. 264) has been included, though we have not yet reviewed it in detail.
Somerville has already done more than any other metro-area community to aggressively zone for transit oriented development, pass a neighborhood revitalization plan, and select a master developer to expedite and leverage the benefits of new transportation infrastructure. The Union Square Neighborhood Plan is yet more evidence of Somerville’s commitment to deliver on these opportunities. We look forward to continued engagement and refinement of development specifics through the zoning ordinance overhaul and development review processes in the future.
Rob Buchanan, Chairperson
Union Square Neighbors