Development a Hot Topic at Forum for Alderman Candidates

The Progressive Democrats of Somerville held a forum for Board of Aldermen candidates.

The Progressive Democrats of Somerville held a forum for Board of Aldermen candidates on July 23, 2013. Photo credit: Chris Orchard
The Progressive Democrats of Somerville held a forum for Board of Aldermen candidates on July 23, 2013. Photo credit: Chris Orchard
Real estate development and the changing face of Somerville were recurring themes Tuesday at a forum for Board of Aldermen candidates.

Six of 14 candidates running for ward-based seats on the Somerville Board of Aldermen attended the forum, organized by the Progressive Democrats of Somerville, though 10 candidates responded to the group's questionnaire.

You can read their questionnaire responses here.

Among other things, candidates spoke about Assembly Square, affordable housing, the rising cost of living and community participation in neighborhood decision-making—all issues that have real estate development at their cores.

"I want to make sure that people in East Somerville know they have a future in this city," said Matt McLaughlin, who's running in Ward 1, which encompasses East Somerville. He said he grew up in West Somerville but can no longer afford to live there, and he doesn't want East Somerville to become too expensive. "East Somerville is the Somerville I remember," he said.

Elio LoRusso, who's also running in Ward 1, felt city government didn't involve residents enough in development proposals. "You can't just show up with slide shows and plans and say, 'This is what we're going to do,' because nine times out of ten it's a done deal," he said.

Matt Desmond, who's running in Ward 3, said, "I'm so afraid the city I love will turn into another Allston-Brighton, just another stop on the Green Line, people live there but they're not from there."

Suzanne Bremer, also running in Ward 3, said, "Somerville is changing. For our hopes and values to be reflected in these changes we need a strong, independent voice in City Hall."

Union Square Housing Project

Candidates touched on these issues while discussing a number of topics, including the proposed Somerville Community Corporation development in Union Square, which the Planning Board approved on July 18. Some neighbors vigorously oppose the proposal.

Bremer, McLaughlin and Katjana Ballantyne, who's running in Ward 7, all supported the project.

"I think our community needs affordable housing," Ballantyne said. "Voters are telling me it's very expensive [to live in Somerville], they're getting displaced from their homes or apartments."

McLaughlin said, "There's not a developer in the city that would have held so many community meetings" as the Somerville Community Corporation.

In regard to concerns about a parking squeeze in the neighborhood as a result of the project, Bremer said, "I think the generations that come after us are going to have a very different relationship to their cars than we do."

"How many parking spaces are really necessary for a two-bedroom condo?" she asked.

Assembly Square

Assembly Square was another topic of discussion.

Maureen Bastardi, Ward 1's current alderman, having been appointed when the previous alderman, Bill Roche, stepped down in December of 2012, said Assembly Square will "bring tons and tons and ton of jobs and tax revenue and housing, some of which will be affordable."

"I imagine it mixed use development, pretty eclectic," she said.

LoRuso was a bit more critical. "I don't think Federal Realty has done all it could with that development over there," he said, referring to Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building the area's Assembly Row development. LoRuso said "I think we need to slow down development" there and refocus on what would benefit the city.

McLaughlin said, "I see a lot of development going on; I think that's a good thing." He said "Assembly Square can change everything we love about East Somerville" but it also has the power to enhance East Somerville. "Generally I'm opposed to big box [stores]" there because it would "become another strip mall," he said.

Desmond said, "It needs to be a neighborhood. It needs to be a place where people live."

Ballantyne called it "smart development" and an "urban village" that could be a model for future development in places like Inner Belt and Boynton Yards.

Too Many Meetings

When it comes to real estate proposals, many candidates felt the need to better inform the public—and not necessarily with more meetings.

Desmond said, "The public process for everything is important," but it's difficult for most people "to go up to City Hall and sit their through meetings, which are tortuous."

It's not realistic for people to get home from work and spend time looking at a Planning Board agenda "to see if they're going to re-zone your neighborhood," he said. He suggested each real estate development in the city have its own website.

Bremer agreed, saying, "We need to come up with better whys of communicating what's happening in the city."

Ballantyne said increasing online participation and social media outreach are good ideas, but it's also important to have "one-on-one" interaction with residents and be available.

McLaughlin said many residents, particularly immigrants and young people, "have a sense of detachment" and a sense that government doesn't work for them. He said he has experience bringing different constituencies to the table.

The candidates discussed other issues, too, such as pay raises for aldermen, schools and children, and local policies to deal with climate change.

Tuesday's meeting was held at the Kesher Center at 13 Garden Court. Members of the Progressive Democrats of Somerville will vote on endorsements online.
Joe Lynch July 24, 2013 at 12:42 PM
Tim, As a neighbor to and on the advisory team for the 199 unit Maxwell's Green development, you're in the right ballpark. There were at least 30 neighborhood meetings to discuss the development of the 5 acre site in Ward 5. In addition, there were 13 advisory committee meetings with city staff and addtional meetings with the developers ad hoc. The entire project, soup to nuts, took almost 4 years.
Rob Buchanan July 24, 2013 at 03:27 PM
Recent studies by the Univ of Michigan and other think tanks are reaching the same conclusions: Americans now own fewer cars per person than they once did, and they drive them less than they used to--and this trend began BEFORE the crash of 2008, so I don't think growth is about targeting one segment of the population over another, so much as it about building the kind of housing that is (and will be) in demand.
Paula Woolley July 24, 2013 at 04:31 PM
I wasn't taking notes, but I thought Suzanne Bremer was talking about Assembly Square when she made the comment about cars. A similar statement had just been made by Matt Desmond, about changing zoning so there are fewer parking places per unit, and having people lease the new apartments in Assembly Square with the agreement that they would not be allowed to get a city parking permit. The idea is that if people are living right next to a T stop, and they have Zip Cars parked next to their building for them to use (and bikes), they wouldn't really need a car. While it's true that many people buy cars once they have kids, many families in our city do get along without cars. (Katya Ballantyne, running for alderman in ward 7, said her family of 4 lives without a car.) And Suzanne Bremer's point was that we're making development decisions now about a future when people living in cities may not automatically want a car.
Ray Guarino July 24, 2013 at 07:18 PM
The city doesn't "need" affordable housing. If you can't afford to live here, then don't. Let the market determine home and rent values.
Tom O'Brien August 27, 2013 at 01:28 PM
You can't simply decide that certain areas, or developments, will be unable to receive parking permits. Wow, what a slippery slope that would be. Even if they don't have cars, where would their guests park? And limiting parking spaces, as we've seen in some neighborhoods already, doesn't translate to people selling their cars. It means they park on the local streets, making parking even more of a headache for the poor folk who happen to live by one of these developments. Cars aren't going away any time soon, so parking must be provided. Davis Square has a T stop. Ever see any cars there???


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