City of Somerville

Agenda Item
Ordinance Ordained.
Apr 26, 2012 7:00 PM

Requesting an amendment to the Zoning 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, and amending the Floodplain Overlay District.


Category:Mayor's RequestPurposes:Zoning Ordinance

Official Text

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.


Meeting History

Nov 22, 2011 7:00 PM Video Board of Aldermen Regular Meeting

Also referred to the Planning Board.

Dec 15, 2011 6:00 PM  Land Use Committee Committee Meeting
Mar 12, 2012 6:00 PM  Land Use Committee Committee Meeting

Chairman White informed those present that Alderman Roche was unable to attend this meeting due to a scheduling conflict, however he did submit a communication on this matter, which was read into the record.

Mr. Proakis spoke about the Planning Board’s recommendation to approve the proposed amendments, (as laid out in the Planning Staff Report of November 17, 2011), and explained the reasoning behind the initiative, providing comparisons between the present and proposed zoning requirements. A change to the zoning of the Elm Street corridor is being proposed so that both sides of the street would have the same zoning, i.e., RC. There was also some discussion about the proposed Transit Oriented District, specifically, TOD-70, and the possibility of air rights development above the commuter rail tracks. A representative from Transit Realty spoke about the importance of timing and said that a hotel would be the most beneficial use for this kind of development and that his company is actively marketing the proposal.

Members of the committee expressed concern regarding the lack of public support for the proposal, the possibility of dense residential development, vacant commercial space in the Porter Square area and the consensus that the plan needs to be re-worked.

Members of the public were given the opportunity to speak on the matter, with the vast majority speaking against the proposal. Among the concerns expressed were the devastating effects upon the neighborhood, loss of the neighborhood’s character, traffic congestion and dismay that letters submitted to the Planning Board in opposition to the proposal were not included with the Planning Board’s recommendation.

Members of the committee requested:

· That written testimony from the Planning Board’s public hearing on this item be provided to the Committee

· That the Planning Department research zoning in the City of Cambridge

· That possible developers be invited to the next committee meeting

Alderman O’Donovan’s motion that the southerly side of Elm Street remains as RB zoning and not be changed to RC zoning, was approved.

Apr 23, 2012 6:00 PM  Land Use Committee Committee Meeting

There were six separate items that were part of the zoning request.

The first and fourth items related to the rezoning of the Porter Square area.

Mr. Proakis explained why a zoning study was performed for the Porter Square area and said that Somerville could benefit from economic development along the Red Line, but in order to move forward along those lines, re-zoning would be necessary. There is a strong push for commercial development and there is a demand for housing, as well. Chairman White and Alderman Lafuente expressed concern regarding the plan, stating that it would entice residential development which would impact current residents. Alderman O’Donovan questioned aspects of commercial development and Mr. Proakis stated that the net benefit of commercial tax revenue is 3 times that of residential.

Chairman White’s motion that the proposed zoning amendment not pass and that OSPCD revisit the 70D, 70 and CCD 55 portions where the car wash and gas station are located, was approved.

Chairman White’s motion that the Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Community Development work with the MBTA towards a form of high-tech development over the train tracks in the Porter Square area, was approved.

The second item was an amendment to the language of the existing zoning provision 6.1.18 relating to flood plan districts. Mr. Duchesneau spoke about the need for compliance with FEMA requirements as they relate to this item. On Chairman White’s motion to approve, the item was approved.

The third item was a technical amendment to the table of uses to add a use cluster “K”. This was inadvertently omitted when the initial changes were made for Transit Oriented Districts TOD 55, 60, 100 and 135. Mr. Proakis discussed the need to add the change so that a special permit would be required for certain large scale commercial uses over 10,000 square feet.

Alderman Lafuente's motion to amend Table 6-5 to include cluster K, was approved.

The fifth item was a proposed amendment to the dimensional requirements with regard to height limitation. The Committee believed that the language needed additional work, so the item remained in committee.

The sixth item provides that the zoning amendments that were recommended to be approved go into effect upon the approval of the zoning amendments by the Board of Aldermen except for those applicants, if any, who had already submitted a building permit application or special permit application. This provision was approved by the Committee.

Apr 26, 2012 7:00 PM Video Board of Aldermen Regular Meeting

ORDAINED AS AMENDED: Sections 1 and 4 are NOT APPROVED. Sections 2, 3, and 6 are APPROVED. Section 5 REMAINS IN COMMITTEE (as #192964).

AYES:John M. Connolly, Bruce M. Desmond, Dennis M. Sullivan, William A. White Jr., William M. Roche, Maryann M. Heuston, Thomas F. Taylor, Rebekah L. Gewirtz, Robert C. Trane, Tony Lafuente
ABSENT:Sean T. O’Donovan