Thursday, May 23, 2024

Residents say they prefer to have the Grand Junction path used for power cables than city streets. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Big increases in demand for electricity from new development could result in several years of workers tearing up streets in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston. That’s because more than 8 miles of underground cables must be installed to connect a higher-capacity Eversource substation coming to Kendall Square with existing ones in those three cities.

It’s the largest construction project in Cambridge in years – and it was unknown to the general public until recently. Few people outside city government were aware of the plans until an Aug. 1 meeting of the City Council when neighbors on one proposed route along Hampshire and Columbia Streets protested publicly. And few of those living in the neighborhood knew of the plan affecting their street, according to one resident who said she handed out 150 flyers in June to tell people – discovering that only one person already knew. (An Eversource representative at a June 28 public hearing where the resident, Tuong-vi Nguyen, of 63 Hampshire St., spoke, said the company had sent detailed information about the plan to every address along the proposed routes).

The state agency weighing the project has proposed its own fix for the complaints – a somewhat different route that would avoid those densely populated streets and make more use of the Grand Junction Railroad. The Energy Facility Siting Board asked Eversource on July 20 to assess the route. Suddenly, that’s the new No. 1 choice.

Eversource told the board on Aug. 11 that the new route scored higher in its analysis than either of its previous preferences: the controversial Hampshire and Columbia streets route, and another route along the Grand Junction railroad. The superior score means the new route will likely cause “lower impacts to the environment and community,” Eversource said.

Eversource has more than one route available to Somerville in its Greater Cambridge Energy Project. Click the image to see the map at full size.

The utility asked the board formally to consider the new route in the proceedings evaluating the project. Eversource said it has already contacted big property owners, including Somerville and Cambridge, and will notify everyone along the new route, but that MBTA requirements for construction beside the railroad could cause problems. Also, the newly proposed route would cost $123.2 million, compared with $98.6 million for the previous top choice along Hampshire and Columbia streets or $130 million for the previous alternative along the railroad, the utility said.

The late proposal raises the question of why Eversource didn’t come up with the idea in the first place – it’s a combination of two routes Eversource had already identified – and why the company didn’t know about the neighborhood opposition. In fact, the new route proposed by the siting board was obvious enough that Barry Zevin, an architect, Hampshire Street resident and Cambridge Redevelopment Authority member who opposed the residential proposal, suggested exactly the same fix in a comment to the siting board.

Engaging the neighbors

Another question: How much do residents in other neighborhoods that will be affected by the 8.3 miles of new underground wires know? In Cambridge, the lines could go through Magazine Beach, along Memorial Drive, through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus and Kendall Square, and along streets in East Cambridge.

Eversource’s application to the Energy Facilities Siting Board and the Department of Public Utilities lists meetings since 2020 with the Cambridge Department of Public Works, sometimes as often as weekly. The department told the utility which streets in Cambridge wouldn’t be practical for installing underground cables because of other underground utilities such as water lines; existing or planned construction such as the new layout of Inman Square; and, in some cases, because of potential development.

The utility has also held a handful of sessions with state agencies such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Department of Conservation and Recreation. Eversource also held meetings with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – one route will go through its campus – Harvard University and developers with property that could be affected.

Eversource planners met less often with ordinary residents and groups representing them. The utility says it mailed notices to addresses along preferred routes, held a scattering of “pop-up” events at supermarkets, farmers markets and other locations where passersby could ask questions and get maps, and held virtual meetings with residents and neighborhood groups. But most of those meetings didn’t occur until routing was well underway.

For example, Eversource held its first meeting with Magazine Beach Partners, representing neighborhood organizations and others interested in preservation and improvement of the park next to the Charles River, only in July 2021, according to material in its application to the siting board. By that time the utility had several times discussed routes crossing the river into Boston, both underground through the park and possibly on an existing or new bridge, with the Department of Conservation and Recreation and with the Cambridge DPW. And it had already decided to cross underground through the park.

Eversource treated the large developer Alexandria Real Estate differently. Utility planners met with Alexandria as far back as October 2020, before the utility had selected a preferred route, to discuss specific routing that could affect Alexandria sites around the new substation and the proposed bike path along the Grand Junction Railroad in the Kendall Square area, and near a Charles River crossing being considered by the Boston University Bridge at Magazine Beach.

Eversource spokesperson Christopher McKinnon said that over the past year the utility had held more than 150 meetings about the transmission line project with local and state agencies and had also held 38 community meetings and “several community pop-up events.” Eversource also sent 16,000 “project notifications to residents in the area,” translated into four languages, he said.

Still evaluating routes

Boston Properties’ Blue Garage in Kendall Square is being transformed by Eversource power needs. (Photo: Marc Levy)

McKinnon said the utility is still evaluating routes to Somerville – the decision at issue in the recent controversy. “Demand for electricity in the area continues to rapidly grow, and the Greater Cambridge Energy Program will enhance the electric system with new and upgraded infrastructure while safely and reliably meeting the current and future needs of our customers in Cambridge, Somerville, Allston and Brighton,” McKinnon said in an emailed statement. “We are working diligently to be good neighbors and have been incorporating public feedback received into viable solutions.”

The siting board “will ultimately decide which route they feel achieves the best balance of environmental concerns, goals of the community and costs to our customers,” he said.

Neighborhood association is disappointed

Meanwhile, although Eversource said it is paying attention to public feedback, it responded to a request from the Save Columbia and Hampshire Neighborhood Association to intervene in the siting board proceedings by saying the group should meet legal requirements for intervening – including showing specifically how the organization could be harmed by a board decision and designating a “duly authorized representative” if it doesn’t have a lawyer. If the group complies, Eversource “would not expect to oppose” giving it “full party status” as an intervenor, Eversource said in a filing July 29.

The neighborhood group submitted a response saying it would provide whatever the siting board wants. It added that Eversource “public relations representatives” had met with group members at a neighborhood cafe shortly after the group asked to intervene “and assured us that they supported our petition” to intervene because it would provide the neighborhood with “in-depth access” to the utility’s plans.

“We were therefore disappointed when, two days later on July 29, 2022, Eversource’s legal team sent a letter opposing our involvement as full-party intervenors,” the group’s filing said. Contacted by Cambridge Day, McKinnon provided a statement from Eversource:

“We support Save Columbia and Hampshire Neighborhood Association’s petition to intervene and merely said previously that the association had not met the standards [set by the siting board] which ensure equal opportunity for groups seeking intervenor status.”

As of Sept. 1, Eversource had not filed a new response to the neighborhood group’s intervention request. The utility had no objections to intervention by Cambridge, Somerville or MIT.

Substation draws attention

The new substation had attracted most of the public attention until now. Eversource at first proposed to build it on Fulkerson Street across the street from the Kennedy-Longfellow School. An outpouring of protest – and a few deals – convinced the utility to move the site to 290 Binney St., Kendall Square. Site owner Boston Properties, which was planning a building there, agreed to the plan in return for getting permission for more commercial space and a park on top of the 10-story underground substation. Boston Properties will also move an existing garage underground.

Those complicated agreements might have obscured the fact that despite the huge scope of a 10-story underground substation, the 8.3 miles of new underground transmission lines could disrupt the lives and businesses of more people. In its application to the siting board and the DPU, Eversource said construction of the substation and the cables would start in 2024, if permits are received, and last for about five years; work on the route from the substation to Somerville alone could take as long as three and a half years. Construction would generally be performed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays but might occur on weekends, nights and even around the clock, depending on needs and conditions, the application said.

Eversource would consult with local officials, obey local construction rules and take steps to minimize impacts on locations such as schools, recreational areas such as Magazine Beach, and “active development sites,” the application said. It would also mitigate environmental impacts such as dust and runoff.

This post was updated Sept. 1, 2022, with information about intervenor status for the the Save Columbia and Hampshire Neighborhood Association.