Curtatone: Momentous vote is a big step in the GLX project

By Joseph A. Curtatone

Click here to read the original article in the Somerville Times

I’ve long been outspoken – along with many of you – about the fact that the Green Line Extension is much more than just an amenity. It’s more than a promise and legal obligation from the Commonwealth. It’s a necessity to our economic and environmental vitality in Somerville and the region. And last week after many years of fighting for this project, we took a big step forward when the Somerville Board of Aldermen cast a momentous vote, voting unanimously in favor of allowing the City to bond for $50 million to contribute to the Green Line Extension project.

But let’s not forget how we got here. Just one year ago, in December 2015, MassDOT and the Fiscal Management Control Board pressed pause on the Green Line Extension project to understand risks and control costs. This was a scary time full of uncertainty. The project was in real danger of not being completed. If the project was canceled, many aspects of Somerville’s goals for the future were in danger too. The Commonwealth made it clear that the Green Line Extension could not move forward without contributions from municipalities.

That put us in an enormously tough position – a position in which we never expected to be. It wasn’t easy for me to make the decision to go before the Board of Aldermen and ask them to approve borrowing to help fund the project. Contributing to the Green Line creates a fiscal burden for our city that both the Board and I would prefer we didn’t have to take on.  But I want to assure you that we will do as much as possible to lessen that burden. To ensure that taxpayers bear as little of the cost as possible, we are already working on options to help pay off the bond via other means such as building permit revenues, developer contributions, and sale of city assets.

But when weighing the costs the Green Line Extension versus the many benefits that expanded public transportation will provide to this community, the choice became clear. Yes, the Green Line Extension will provide us with a short-term financial burden but it will deliver long-term fiscal sustainability. Among them, it will generate an estimated additional $261 million in property tax revenue over 30 years.

Beyond the monetary benefits, the Green Line will also finally bring environmental justice for some of our most vulnerable residents who currently live in the I-93 corridor and breathe the exhaust it generates daily. Extending the Green Line will reduce the vehicle miles traveled in our city by more than 25,000 miles per day. This will reduce air pollution caused by vehicle emissions known to be a threat to public health and safety.  The Green Line will also move us forward toward achieving social justice by expanding rapid transit access to more than 85 percent of our City. This will not only create more jobs here in Somerville, but it will also improve access to employment opportunities for residents by giving them a more efficient way to commute into Boston.

It was clear to me: Somerville could not afford to keep the pause button pressed on the Green Line Extension. Your aldermen recognized this too. I want to commend them for their tremendous dedication, effort, and due diligence on this issue. The vote for this project was a big deal, and they treated it as such. They held several special meetings, listened to numerous residents, always came prepared with thoughtful and detailed questions, and made sure they fully understood the scope of the impact this vote would have on residents.

I am thankful for their cautious approach to this vote, but ultimately, I’m thankful that in the end we were all on the same page: recognizing that the Green Line Extension is an essential component to the success of our collective futures.

Now, just because the vote is done doesn’t mean the hard work is complete. In fact, we have a lot to do to make sure we stay on track for the projected 2021 completion date. The Commonwealth has been successful in getting the project back on track in the procurement process, and their request for qualifications from the bidding community is open now. The request for proposals process will be initiated next spring.

We have several things to do on our end as well to ensure we’re ready for the Green Line Extension and the new development it will bring to some of our neighborhoods. Perhaps most crucial is passing an updated zoning code to ensure that we capitalize on all the opportunity the Green Line will offer so that the projected building permit revenues and developer contributions that we need to net down the cost of our contribution are realized. Additionally, we need to iron out the details of a side agreement with the Commonwealth that will allow us to explore creative ways to tie in storm water drainage to the Green Line construction, which is an enormous benefit and will mitigate some legacy flooding issues. And these are just a couple of things on our To Do list.

It’s apparent that we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but what happened last week was significant. We are closer than we have ever been to the Green Line finally being fully greenlighted. We couldn’t have done it without you and your active engagement and participation throughout the process. This vote was a testament to all of us once again that when called on to meet its challenges, Somerville always stands up.

ICYMI: City Planning Board unanimously supports Union Square Zoning

Move seen as another positive step in the process

Bluntly Speaking by Ross Blouin

The City’s Planning Board last Thursday voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of Alderman approve the City’s Union Square Zoning Overlay District. The overlay as written will allow the City’s development partner, Union Square Station Associates (US2), to move forward with the redevelopment of 15.6 acres in Union Square. The development is expected to generate over $10 million annually in new tax revenue and create over 5,000 permanent jobs.

The unanimous decision to recommend the zoning was made after a lengthy discussion of two topics: open space and enforcement of a commercial and residential balance. Several members of the Board actively questioned whether the city could increase the amount of open space required under the plan. City representatives noted that increases to open space would either require additional project height or a reduction in overall development and subsequent tax revenue. Others looked for assurance from the City that the plan contains sufficient enforcement authority to make sure developers build accordingly.

The Board deferred dealing with a proposal by Alderman William White to increase the percent of commercial development required in the Square to 68% while reducing the amount of residential building for this project. Currently the Neighborhood Plan establishes 60% of the project for commercial space and 40% for residential. White’s proposal would not count retail, manufacturing or hotel use as commercial usage, though those uses are taxed at the commercial rate. Concerns have been expressed that a drastic change to the percentage in the Neighborhood Plan may adversely impact neighborhood parking availability, and have other far reaching implications.

As previously reported in the Times, Mayor Curtatone spoke in favor of the zoning for this project at the last Board of Aldermen meeting late last month, “If we don’t move forward with this zoning, we will be solely responsible for paying for other infrastructure needs in Union Square which must be addressed regardless of the development of Union Square,” he said, referring to the $40 million utility upgrades in the square as well as the $50 million responsibility of the city to pay for the Green Line Extension.

The approved zoning recommendations will be presented to the Board of Aldermen for final approval. The Board of Aldermen are currently reviewing the Union Square Zoning overlay and are expected to vote on it later this year.

Click here to read the full article in the Somerville Times.