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Thoughts on the Union Square Neighborhood Plan as submitted to the Planning Board

‘Build a sustainable future through strong environmental leadership, balanced transportation modes, engaging recreational and community spaces, exceptional schools and educational opportunities, improved community health, varied and affordable housing options, and effective stewardship of the land.’

Somervision’s Shared Community Values

(pg 34 in the Neighborhood plan)

Planning Board Members,

Here are comments from Green and Open Somerville and Somerville Climate Action on the Union Square Neighborhood Plan:

Somerville must define Green Space separately from Open Space. The EPA defines green space as “land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation. Green space includes parks, community gardens, and cemeteries.”We would add: Green Space is anything that requires sun, water, and soil for its survival. It must release oxygen into the air and sequester carbon into the soil.

Somerville must measure our current amount of green space and set this amount as a minimum requirement for green space in Somerville. We have so little already, that we cannot afford to reduce this amount. But to increase green space, as stated as one of the goals in Somervision, we need to know how much we have right now.

The plan’s proposed 15% Open Space is unacceptable. The community has been asking for more green and open space from the outset. 34% is our recommendation, and the recommendation of the CAC.We would like that certain percentage be green (⅔). Our definition of green space can be achieved on the vertical axis (living walls) and on terraces and rooftops.We need to make Open Space a priority. It makes a city a more desirable place to live. Green and open space also increase the nearby property’s value.  

All train tracks must be covered within 100 yds of recreational and green spaces.Air pollution created by trains is harmful to humans, especially when exercising. No field should be placed within 100 yds of busy streets or trains due to nanoparticles and their detrimental health effects. Tufts has done studies on this:

Rooftops, Walls, and Parking: No structure in Union Square can have parking on top of a building. All top levels of buildings, including parking garages, must be devoted to sustainability. They must be fitted with photovoltaic solar panels, have a green roof (plants and soil), and/or have a blue roof (water collection), etc. Our new way of thinking should focus on lowering, if not completely eliminating, the environmental impact of our structures.Living green walls and roofs must be required for all new construction. If it is on a private building, we should offer an incentive to encourage the owner to allow public access. These green roofs and walls do not count towards our green space minimum or goals, but are vital components of creating a healthy urban environment. Painting one’s roof white is not enough.All new roofs must have the structural capacity to support urban agriculture, playing fields, or rooftop parks.

Green Space Proximity: The same rules of how close one must be to a playground must also apply to green space.

Green Space in Union Square: We MUST have green space and recreational space in Union Square. It cannot be shunted to Boynton Yards.

The Community Path cannot be considered green until it is green: Mounds of crumb rubber, tiers of artificial turf, and condo landscaping (mulch with a smattering of plants) is not green.

Streets, Civic Space and Open Space: If a passenger car or bus can legally drive on it, that space cannot be counted towards our open space nor civic space.

Ricky's: Removing Ricky’s and replacing it with a mini-park does not make sense. His space is valuable to our community and is already a green area where people congregate.

Accessibility to green space must be more rigorous for our elders: Gardening, planting flowers, listening to music, playing games, and relaxing is a must to maintain a high quality of life for our most precious and most neglected citizens. They need a place to sit and be that is not a playground.

All public spaces must adhere to Somerville's Green Space Standard: This future ordinance will  be similar to that of New York’s City’s Biodiversity and Sustainable Public Landscapes’ one; but Somerville’s will be better. aim is to get carbon out of the atmosphere, create biodiversity, increase green space, reduce stormwater runoff, reduce the amount of maintenance for our landscapes, foster curiosity, educate the citizens, provide beauty, plant native trees, shrubbery, flowers and grasses to reintroduce native ecology back to the city and reintroduce urbanites to the native flora and fauna that used to live here, support bees, birds and butterflies, create an urban wild/forest, mitigate pollution, make better tree well designs so the trees we plant survive, include more planting strips and bioswales, construct sustainable sidewalks that use green design principles, save money and make our city a pleasant place in which to live.

Civic Space: We would like to see more renderings of our civic spaces. This has been a Somerville Priority from the outset. We want our city to be a community focused on the health and well being of its citizens.

Affordable Housing: It says in the mission statement that varied and affordable housing is needed. We need much, much more housing that is affordable to more than just the affluent.

Housing Split: We would like to see the housing split to have much more 3-4 bedroom units. Millennial housing (1-2 bedroom units comprises more than ½ of the proposed housing).The city has is backwards when they say that study’s and demographics is dictating the kind of housing. We disagree. We believe that the types of housing are dictating the demographics.We want ALL demographics of people be able to live in Somerville in equal measure.

Redeveloping Grey Fields: Target is the largest Landholder in the area. Yes to redeveloping Target! Yes to reducing a ‘Sea of Parking’!

Using Green Design Standards in Landscaping: Our current landscape practices are antiquated and often do more harm than good. They contribute to climate change, pollute the water systems, decrease biodiversity and have negative health impacts on humans and animals.By using green landscaping principles we:Combat climate change by taking carbon out of the air and putting it back in the soil.Mitigate Stormwater runoff.Decrease need for maintenance.Create perpetual self-watering planting beds.Foster biodiversity.

Preserving the Boston Skyline: It is imperative that we think about how our new development will affect the Boston skyline. The Boston skyline as seen from Prospect Hill needs be preserved for all of Somerville citizens to enjoy. We want Prospect Hill Park to be the highest feature in Union Square and Boynton yards. We would like to preserve the view of Fenway Park from Prospect Hill Monument. It is spectacular to view at night and it enriches Somerville to be able to view this historic landmark.  

Temptation to Overdevelop: Please let us not overdevelop. We need to make the city a livable, desirable place for people.  Without setbacks, open space, and buildings maxed out, we lose the human scale.

Specific plan page notes:

Layout of plan: We are disappointed with the Neighborhood Plan document’s lack of street labeling and reference points. It makes it very confusing to understand where specific areas are.

Page 77: The plan says, “Somerville loves our green spaces.”According to the Gehl Architects Survey quoted in the Plan, when asked to provide their favorite place, “more than 10% of respondents prefer small intimate parks.” Out of the top five favorite places, number three was Prospect Hill Park and Union Square Plaza was five. What were one, two, and four? Where did Lincoln Park or the Community Path rank on that list? What did the other 90% of respondents say?On Somerville’s love of small intimate parks:We only have small parks in Somerville. Of course we love them because they are the only green space we have! The takeaway from the Gehl Survey should be that we love our green spaces, not that we prefer smaller parks.From an outside perspective, Prospect Hill Park may seem small, but it is one of the largest green spaces we have. We would like parks the size of Prospect Hill and larger.

It would also be wonderful to incorporate an “Emerald Necklace”, something like the Rose Kennedy Greenway or Highline Park in New York City. We need more seating, art, recreational aspects and water features throughout these landscapes.

Page 80: The land for Merriam Street Park needs to be set aside before the green line is established. A Green Space fund for a rainy day is not enough. It leaves too much up to the future, which is unknown. Green space must be designed concomitantly while other parcels are being developed - i.e., if D2 is being developed, the proposed Merriam Street Park must be built at the same time. This will assure that the green space we want, deserve, and are planning for will actually come to fruition.

Page 80/81: The plan says, “15% of land being developed must be civic space.”Does ‘civic space’ include sidewalks? If that’s the case, the sidewalks would compromise more than 15%. Is 15% the total volume of the buildings or the footprint? We need more civic space.

General Questions/Comments:

Is the proposed future zoning being adhered to while buildings are being erected now? The sidewalks in front of 193 Washington Street seem quite narrow for the size of the building. The structure is built out to the sidewalk. What does the proposed new zoning say about sidewalk widths and setbacks?

Are sidewalks considered part of the public space/civic space?  What's the difference between open and civic space? What is the difference between public space and civic space?

When do electric buses come to town? Is there grant money we can apply for?

Can we do modular housing stacked atop each other like they do in Cambridge?

What are the specifics on the millennial condos?

Is the Planning committee voting on an aspirational document or a set in stone one?

What is the legal significance of the Neighborhood Plan?


Somerville has an amazing opportunity at this moment to set the model of what it means to be the New American City. We want to be the standard by which all cities are measured. If we commit the to community values as iterated in Somervision, and commit to the community’s vision of what Somerville should be, we will achieve it.

We fear if the City and Planning Board do not hear our concerns to improve the Neighborhood Plan, we will fail at this goal.

We would have liked to have more time on this document and have a chance to compare our findings with more members of the community. But we appreciate the extra week.

We will continue to be vocal. We hope the city and the Planning Board will put the concerns and goals of its citizens ahead of those of the developers.  

Thank you for reading our commentary.

Green & Open SomervilleSomerville Climate Action

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