Mayor announces “pause” in design process, seeking more community input
(Somerville Wire) – Committed to siting a new police and fire complex at 90 Washington St., the City has nevertheless paused the design process for the new building.
“We put down our pencils. The design of the building is on pause, so we can take community feedback into account before taking more steps forward,” Mayor Katjana Ballantyne told a group of abutters and other community members last week.
Ballantyne convened a public meeting last Wednesday morning, May 25, to discuss the plans to build a new public safety building at 90 Washington St. Located just outside Union Square, the site is very close to the East Somerville Green Line station, scheduled to open this summer.
The meeting was led by Denise Molina Capers, director of the City’s Racial and Social Justice Department. Interpreters translated into six languages to make sure community members could understand and be heard.
“We need your voice,” Ballantyne said. “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to come personally to listen to the concerns and ideas of Cobble Hill residents.”
Many of the residents who attended the meeting—which took place in the parking lot adjacent to the site, were residents of the Cobble Hill Apartments—an affordable housing property abutting the site. Ballantyne recounted how she met with Cobble Hill residents about this project last December, after she was elected mayor.
“But that was not my first time here. Some of you may remember that I first got involved with Cobble Hill about 20 years ago, back in 2002, when the owner wanted to convert the building to market-rate housing. The use of affordable housing was legally expiring. With Somerville Community Corporation, where I was a volunteer board member and activist, we got involved. We fought to keep the building affordable, and we won,” she recounted.
“On this project, I’ve heard lots of conflicting opinions,” she said. “As mayor, I have to consider all of those opinions. Then it’s my duty to find a solution that best meets both individual needs and community needs.”
Ballantyne detailed her reasoning on why she supports the project.
“We need a public safety building for the city, no matter what public safety looks like in the future. We are working on a process to re-envision public safety. But whether a traditional police force, or social workers, or … [however] we deliver public safety, we will need a building for the people who are doing that work.”
In addition, “We need a fire station in this area to protect lives, homes, and businesses. The city evaluated and landed on this location as the best site that can meet this vital need.”
The mayor also pointed out that the lot has been vacant for years, “and I want you and the neighborhood to have better services and amenities next door.”
90 Washington St. was previously owned by the owners of Cobble Hill Apartments. The city was granted permission to take the land by eminent domain from the private landowners for the purpose of erecting a public safety building.
“The courts gave us permission to take the lot for a public safety building, but they said we were allowed to also include other uses, as long as we build the public safety building too. Options include a park, storefronts for shops and services, affordable housing, or more. I want to work with you and the neighborhood to figure out what that should be,” Ballantyne explained.
Responding to concerns expressed in letters submitted to the city by the neighbors, Ballantyne told meeting attendees: “I understand that many of you felt that you were not heard early on in the process. I know the staff worked very hard on outreach and options to participate. But we are always striving to improve. As mayor, I’m committed to making that, when we reach out to the community, that we will do our best to make sure that everyone who wants to be heard has a chance to join in.”
She added, “If the city doesn’t develop this lot, you will have far less say in what happens.”
Community members at the meeting voiced concerns about the potential for disruptive siren noises, increasing traffic, loss of the green space between Cobble Hill Apartments and the construction site, and the loss of walkable stores and services since the shopping center on the site was torn down several years ago.
In response to these concerns, George Proakis, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, gave a short history of the project. The owners of the Cobble Hill Apartments spoke to the City “quite a few years ago, maybe seven years ago,” he said. “They wanted to build new housing, market-rate housing, not affordable housing,” on the site of the shopping center at 90 Washington. The plan included removing the green space between the two properties and putting in a road there. Their plan went through the city planning process and was approved.
But instead of building the new apartments, the owners shut down the adjacent shopping center and then two of the partners “started suing each other, fighting over who was going to get the profits from this very profitable building,” according to Proakis.
As the city was looking for a site for a new public safety building in the area, “This site became very appealing. It also was vacant, was blighted, it was left blighted because of people suing each other over profits. We decided that it was better in the hands of the community,” he said.
“The land that the city has here is a lot bigger than what we need for a public safety building,” he explained, adding that the community should decide what other amenities would also be located on the property.
Most of the residents who spoke at the meeting expressed strong opposition to the public safety building, but some Cobble Hill residents said they were afraid to speak in favor of the project. A group of about 50 Cobble Hill residents wrote a letter anonymously, which they asked Steven Flythe, Deputy Director of the Department of Racial and Social Justice, to read on their behalf.
“We fear to publicly express our opinion on account of a possible retaliation by the Cobble Hill administration,” Flythe read. Their letter cited a lack of security and other concerns about Cobble Hill.
According to these residents, the owners sent out an invitation letter that stated: “Management would like for all residents to come out and show the mayor of Somerville that Cobble Hill residents are totally against placing a municipal building at 90 Washington St.”
The mayor responded: “Thank you to the 50 residents who wrote about sadly not feeling that their voices were heard [by their landlord]. I want to say that that’s not acceptable.”
Addressing residents’ noise concerns, Rich Raiche, director of Infrastructure and Asset Management, said he’s been a Somerville resident for 25 years: “I lived across the street from Engine 7 on Highland Ave. for about five years. And I now live across the street from a halfway house. I guarantee you, I hear the sirens more now than when I lived across the street from Engine 7.”
He explained that fire engines don’t need to turn on their sirens when they’re leaving or entering the station because they can control the traffic lights, and police cars aren’t dispatched directly from the station so they don’t use their sirens either. “We can mitigate the siren noise at the fire station and at the public safety building better than we can anywhere else in the city,” he said. “The idea of this generating noise that you don’t already hear is a falsehood.”
Proakis added that it’s been a challenge for the City to communicate effectively with the Cobble Hill community. “This has been the project for which it has been the toughest for us to bring immediate residents and neighbors together to hear their voices. Part of that, honestly, has been about a challenge in the relationship between us and the owners at Cobble Hill and our ability to get in and visit you. I know they have meetings with you to give you their perspective on what’s going on here. I want to make sure that we have a chance to hear you.”
Proakis was appointed Watertown’s next city manager last week, though his date for leaving Somerville has not yet been determined.
“We have your letters, but there’s nothing more valuable than sitting around a table talking,” he said. “So this is a beginning, not an end.”
Photo Credit: Aerial View of 90 Washington St site courtesy of the City of Somerville.
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Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.