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Get in the Zone

What’s Happening with Zoning in Somerville?

During fall 2016, the City of Somerville’s Planning Department proposed changes to the Union Square zoning laws. The Planning Department is hoping to introduce a revised version of the citywide zoning overhaul sometime in 2017.

The first round of the overhaul was actually released in January 2015. However, the Board of Aldermen felt that the new ordinance wasn’t ready and decided not to vote on it.

What Is Zoning?

The zoning code is a set of laws governing what types of buildings can be built, how big they can be, and what amenities developers need to include, like affordable housing, green space or parking. Zoning also determines different areas based on the use of buildings – like residential, industrial or commercial.

Zoning determines what kind of development will happen in the City of Somerville over the next several decades, along with the process for new developments to be approved. It’s also an important opportunity for residents to have a voice in decision-making. And it offers the chance for residents to make sure that real community benefits are required in zoning, since changes to the zoning code must be approved by the Somerville Planning Board and the Board of Aldermen.

New Zoning for Union Square

In July 2016, the Planning Department released a new zoning proposal for Union Square, specifically the area slated for redevelopment by master developer Union Square Station Associates’ (US2)*. The proposal would create several commercial-only zones in the areas next to the future Union Square Green Line station.

It also would allow for a 20-story residential tower in the middle of Union Square. And it would make it easier for US2 to apply for permits to develop all seven of the development blocks with a “Comprehensive Development Special Permit.”

Including Community Benefits in Zoning

There are several ways that community benefits can be included in zoning. Somerville’s zoning already includes a requirement that 20% of the housing units in new developments be affordable to low- and moderate-income people. It also requires developers to contribute money to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund through a mechanism called a “linkage fee.”

The new Union Square zoning would create opportunities for US2 to make a significant profit from the Union Square redevelopment. We believe that it should also require an investment in the types of benefits that will allow Union Square residents and businesses to enjoy the benefits of the project.

This includes the implementation of a linkage fee for jobs, which was approved by Governor Charles Baker last summer and must now be implemented by the Somerville Board of Aldermen. It also includes a commitment to negotiate an enforceable community benefits agreement, or CBA**, that includes measures to prevent displacement.

Maintaining Momentum

In November, SCC members joined with the rest of the Union United coalition to pack the City Hall chambers with a diverse group of stakeholders and experts for a public hearing on CBAs. We asked and continue to press the aldermen to ensure US2’s commitment to a CBA before any new zoning is approved.

* Union Square Station Associates (US2) describes itself as “the City of Somerville’s master developer partner for the state-approved Union Square Revitalization Project.”

** A Community Benefits Agreement is a binding contract between a community group and a developer in which the developer agrees to provide benefits like living wages, increased open space, and affordable housing that address the needs of the community. 

Learn the story of SCC - watch the mini documentary:

Members of the community in Somerville, MA come together for an illuminated walk to bring attention to gentrification and housing affordability in East Somerville. Produced in collaboration with the Somerville Community Corporation and Mister Francis. Written, directed, and edited by Andrew Eldridge. Produced by Elizabeth Eldridge, Andrew Eldridge.

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Somerville sits on the original homelands of the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Naumkeag, and Nipmuc tribal nations. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory, and we honor and respect the many diverse Indigenous peoples still connected to this land on which we live and work.

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