According to SomerVision, Somerville's Comprehensive Plan to guide the City to 2030, Union Square is an area where transformative development will take place. Six percent of SomerVision's city-wide goals for housing and jobs are designated for this neighborhood. This translates into 350 units of new housing or 380,000 sq feet of new residential development and 1,800 new jobs or 600,000 sq feet of new commercial development. 61% of the nearly 1 M sq ft in new construction therefore needs to be allocated to commercial, rather than residential uses, if we are to meet this vision.
To make all this development happen 25 acres of land is needed.
Right now the City of Somerville is considering rezoning 10 acres of Union Square. The owner of the Maaco building at 444 Somerville Avenue has petitioned the City to change the parcels along Somerville Avenue between Dane and Church Streets (where Market Basket and the old brick American Tube Works buildings are) from a strictly commercial (IA) area into a mixed-use (CCD-55) zone.
This isn't a positive choice for Somerville.
We've seen in Union Square, since the new mixed use zoning was enacted in 2009, that when parcels are zoned for mixed-use developers universally seek to build residential rather than commercial properties. All of the recent development plans accepted by the City's Planning Board for Union Square -- 70 Prospect St, 179-181 Washington Street, and 380 Somerville Ave -- have been residential projects.
These proposals put the neighborhood ahead of SomerVision targets for both affordable and market-rate housing. But new commercial development for Union Square, beyond the minimal first-floor retail in these residential projects, has been nil. We're far behind in our jobs goals.
Increasing the number of apartments in Somerville is a positive thing, but the pressure to create more housing overwhelms the long-term, less immediately apparent need, both of individual residents and of the City as a whole, for commercial development.
Why is this so important? A robust commercial tax base is essential for Somerville to maintain city services; commercial properties pay roughly twice the property tax rate as residential and provide a net gain for the City. If we seek thriving squares humming with daytime activity, if we appreciate the value of our arts community, if we want neighborhoods where it's still possible to walk to work, if we treasure economic diversity, we need the spaces for businesses, and with them a variety of jobs, to exist.
After years of work we're seeing fresh business interest in Somerville, especially at the Ames complex on the edge of Union Square. The last space at Ames has just been leased and that vast commercial property is now fully occupied. The new businesses here are compatible with the neighborhood's dense, pedestrian-oriented fabric and the City's work force. The bubbling core of the Ames complex is just across Dane Street from these parcels under consideration for rezoning. The cresting wave of emerging business energy in Somerville could land in the properties adjoining the Ames complex if we hold tight to this once in a century opportunity and say no to those who would spring up condos here.
To accept that there's no potential on the corner of Somerville Avenue and Dane Street for anything other than today's auto body shop and storage facility is to ignore the positive opportunities we've nurtured for the past decade and the innovation hub that exists, quite literally, next door.
Not preserving the commercial areas on Somerville Avenue would be the forever loss of essential business development for our city. It's a precious resource we can't afford to give away.
The Board of Aldermen's Land Use Committee is once again taking up this issue on Monday, October 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm in the Committee Room, 2nd Floor, City Hall.