City unveils new development plan

by Tom Nash on September 21, 2010

A proposal by city planners that would turn several properties into parking garages and the Union Square post office into a performing arts center is being pitched as a way to help prepare for the next 30 years of growth.

After learning the timeline between the plan’s introduction and presentation to the state is just over six weeks, residents and businesses have asked the city to allow for more input, with one owner likening the plan to “throw(ing) a fastball right by us.”

The Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development shared its proposal to take part in the state’s District Improvement Financing Program (DIF), which would allow tax revenue generated from improvements in Union Square, Somerville Avenue and other areas to go directly back to those projects, at a Sept. 15 public hearing at the Argenziano School.

“DIF captures incremental growth in property value, primarily through market value, but also through people making improvements and investing (in the area),” Director of Economic Development Rob May said after the meeting. “You’re allowed to capture that revenue and reinvest it.”

Aside from infrastructure projects that would prepare the area for the coming of the Green Line in 2015, the proposed projects include roadway reconstruction and sewer and storm drain separation. The DIF boundary includes 445 acres from Porter Square to Brickbottom and the Inner Belt, covering 16.5 percent of the city.

With the city’s stated goal of having the proposal ready in October for the state’s Economic Advisory Board, business owners and residents expressed concern at the Sept. 15 meeting that the city is moving too quickly.

Some expressed bewilderment that they hadn’t been notified about the proposal prior to last Wednesday’s meeting, if at all. For some, the plan has drastic consequences, with 36 lots slated to be acquired through either “negotiated sale” or eminent domain, in order to build parking garages and otherwise revitalize the area.

Ricky DiGiovanni, owner of Ricky’s Flower Market, said he never received notice from the city about the public hearing. The DIF plan calls for his property to be used as a parking garage, like 12 other properties around Union Square, including Korean grocer Reliable Market. (To see the entire list, click here.)

“I don’t think [OSCPD] properly notified all the owners they have in mind,” DiGiovanni said. “They have a pretty expensive plan in play, but for the key ingredient they didn’t notify any of the owners. That was a surprise to me.”

“For all that research and study that went into [the DIF], how much did they pay for it?” he added. “And yet for the most important part, you’d think you’d want to notify the abutters involved. Or do you just want to throw a fastball right by us?

Chamber of Commerce President Stephen Mackey also expressed concern that the city is moving too quickly, while noting he believes notice went out to most of the property owners involved.

“I don’t doubt that [some] business owners didn’t get notice,” Mackey said. “I don’t really blame the city. I think what is important here is that it’s a 450 acre area that involves $912 million in property. It’s a very complex proposal, and the city needs to take its time. It needs to have public input most of all.”

May said the city plans to meet with property owners during the next few weeks to discuss the proposed acquisitions, and the money the city would be paying them in exchange for the land. He added that the city would also work to find new space for the businesses who would like to stay in the city.

“There will be no acquisitions in the next year or so,” he said, adding, “A DIF doesn’t give us anymore eminent domain authority than we already have.”

The DIF proposal will be presented to the Board of Aldermen this Thursday, with written comments from the public accepted until Sept. 29.

While May said delaying a vote beyond October would keep the plan from reaching the state until March, and that the city would like the property values locked in sooner rather than later, OSCPD is considering additional hearings.

“The community has asked for more time to discuss this, and we are not opposed to that,” he said.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

David September 21, 2010 at 2:11 PM

This sounds like a terrible plan. Union Square is already congested with cars most of the time, so it’s hard to see how more parking spaces will make the neighborhood more appealing.

Haven’t Somerville city planners read the High Cost of Free Parking – (, or the book –

Davis Square seems to be doing pretty well with very few (and expensive) public parking spaces. Porter Square has a ton of (privately owned) parking spaces, making it a pretty unpleasant place to drive on evenings and weekends.

Take a field trip to Fitchburg. They’ve added hundreds of public, parking-garage spaces in the past few years to revitalize the town center, but those spaces (and adjacent store-fronts) are still mostly empty.

Pamela September 21, 2010 at 3:08 PM

I agree. We’re talking about planning for the year 2040… and the best and most creative idea we can come up with is a bunch of parking garages? Total nonsense. Somerville has the potential to be a leader in green development — and in transparent community planning.

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