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City Wants to Make Zoning Laws Less Byzantine, Plan for Green Line

A public "Somerville by Design" process will kick off on Oct. 17 with a "visioning session" at The Center for Arts at the Armory.

The city of Somerville is launching a urban planning initiative called "Somerville by Design," which will kick off with a "visioning session" on Oct. 17, according to an announcement sent by the mayor's office Tuesday.

The purpose of "Somerville by Design" is to seek opinions about the future of Magoun, Ball and Gilman squares, which could be home to MBTA train stations by the end of the decade if the Green Line Extension progresses as planned.

"Somerville by Design" will also inform city planners in an effort to significantly overhaul residential zoning laws in the city, according to Brad Rawson, a senior planner with the city's Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.

The two issues—residential zoning laws and visions for future Green Line neighborhoods—are connected, Rawson said.

"We should plan for appropriate levels of growth and investment" in residential neighborhoods throughout the city, he said. Neighborhoods close to future Green Line stations will need particular attention.

The "Somerville by Design"  initiative is part of a broader effort spearheaded by the city to prepare for the Green Line Extension and deal with real-estate market forces in the Boston area.

The most recent example of this planning has been the SomerVision Comprehensive Plan, a conceptual roadmap for the future of the city that was approved in the spring.

"Somerville by Design" is the next step, explained Rawson, as it begins to make real the ideas put forth in SomerVision. In addition to the Oct. 17 visioning session, members of the public will be invited to design charettes on Nov. 28 and 29, where they can offer design ideas, according to a flyer. On Jan. 8, 2013, officials will present a plan.

It's all part of a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sustainable Communities Program, according to Rawson and Tuesday's announcement.

Somerville was the only community in Massachusetts to receive a Sustainable Communities grant, Rawson said. The money was used to finish the SomerVision plan, and it's also funding the "Somerville by Design" initiative.

Soon, the city will use more of the grant money to do two other things: streamline the permitting process in the city and seed an affordable housing land bank, which would help the city support affordable housing projects, according to Rawson.

Fixing residential zoning

Rawson said the city's residential zoning laws are "cobbled together [with] a lot of Band-Aids."

At best the zoning code governing residential neighborhoods is 30 years old, he said.

According to a report issued in late summer, "The RA/RB Report," the city's residence A and residence B zoning districts are no longer working well. The code is "too hard to navigate, vague in meaning, and contradictory in intended outcome," the report says. It also says the zoning code fails to preserve Somerville's unique neighborhoods and doesn't deal with transit stations and modern "smart-growth" goals.

Residence A and B zoning districts cover nearly 60 percent of Somerville's land area and represent 80 percent of all lots in the city, the report says.

Visioning session

The Oct. 17 "visioning session" takes place at The Center for Arts at the Armory from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. 

The city has hired Jeff Speck, former design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, as a design consultant.

"He is a national leader in this kind of planning," said Rawson.

Those who attend the visioning session will likely participate in small group discussions where they can share ideas.

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