To the Honorable Board:
Enclosed is the proposed ordinance amending Zoning Districts for the areas consisting of Somerville Avenue from Wilson Square to the Somerville-Cambridge line at Porter Square, White Street, and Elm Street from White Street to Wilson Square.
The proposed district rezoning represents one year of effort that has involved feedback and collaboration from residents, business persons, and organizations throughout the area. Its intention is to support the ongoing revitalization efforts along Somerville Avenue, capture significant benefits from the nearby rapid transit station, and to provide development guidelines for gateways with significant growth potential located next to the rapid transit station. As a result, the rezoning was developed on principles that retain and respect the unique character of the neighborhood and gateways that attract residents and businesses alike.
The initial interest in rezoning the Porter Square neighborhood came about with the spending of $20 million to upgrade Somerville Avenue’s infrastructure and streetscape environment, to update it with current city infrastructure needs, and to make it friendlier to businesses and local residents. Data indicates there is a stagnant rate of new construction in the area since 1995 despite the close proximity to a rapid transit station. For instance, since 2004, residential property taxes in the Somerville portion of Porter Square far exceed any potential commercial property tax derived from economic activity. Moreover, although the area represents one of the busiest pedestrian and bicycle areas in Somerville, economic activity is largely captured by Cambridge. For example, data indicates that retail activity within a half mile radius of Porter Square accounts for a market of $340 million in consumer spending, while existing retail sales are around $200 million.
Presently, the largest challenge for economic development - necessary to relieve the tax burden from residential owners - is caused by the existing restrictive zoning regulations. The current zoning of the area includes BA Commercial Districts, as well as RB and RC Residential Districts. The biggest concern related to the existing zoning is that it limits design flexibility and options for redevelopment or new development to fit into the context of the existing neighborhood and the urban character of the area. The proposed district rezoning would dictate which areas of the neighborhood are conserved, which are enhanced, and which are transformed to support neighborhood scale mixed use, transit oriented development. In addition, the rezoning would also enhance the value of properties by allowing owners more flexibility to make alterations to their buildings or to redevelop their parcels entirely. Consequently, it would establish a land use policy centered around human scale development that would balance economic benefit for the community in the form of new businesses, jobs, and tax revenue for the city, while preserving and protecting the community quality of life.
The proposed district rezoning introduces some of the new zoning districts created as part of the Union Square and Broadway rezoning efforts. These include the Corridor Commercial District (CCD) 45 and 55 and the Transit Oriented District (TOD) 70. Attributes of these districts encourage a mix of business activities while ensuring street-level uses such as retail, restaurants and small offices, reduced parking requirements, sustainable development, strong design guidelines and design review requirements, and well-designed pedestrian access near transit nodes and commercial squares. The residential core of the area, the neighborhood between Elm Street and Somerville Avenue, would remain an RB Residential District, while the southwest side of Elm Street would be rezoned to an RC Residential District from its current RB Residential District zoning. These parcels on the southwest side of Elm Street would then match the zoning of the parcels directly across from them on the northeast side of Elm Street and be combined into the same RC Residential District. Additionally, one parcel near the intersection of Elm Street and Cedar Street is currently zoned both RB and RC. To rectify this zoning map error, the parcel would be zoned to be located only within the RC Residential District
A few text changes are also proposed as part of this rezoning effort to clarify existing language and add a section to the recently amended Floodplain Overlay District to include required notification requirements in the zoning ordinance.
I want to thank the Porter Square community for its participation in the Porter Square Visioning and Implementation Process and Rezoning, and the amount of energy and time invested in transforming the Porter Square Vision Statement into a concrete plan. The proposed district rezoning comprehensively addresses the existing challenges and opportunities facing the area and strives to establish a framework within which the proposed vision can be realized to continue making Somerville a great place for people to live, work, play and raise a family.