Sunday, June 16, 2024

Eversource’s electrical substation in Union Square, Somerville, is due to get a third transformer. (Photo: Russell Adams)

With its array of commercial and residential buildings under construction or in the pipeline and its plans to decarbonize to address climate change, Somerville is going to need a lot more electricity.

Eversource proposes to add a third transformer to a substation on Prospect Street, across from the new green line station in Union Square, but found continued resistance from residents at a virtual public meeting it hosted Monday – despite a proposal revised since an initial presentation on February that drew criticism.

“We heard you,” Eversource outreach manager Meredith Boericke assured attendees. “We heard this station is ugly, unattractive, neglected.”

In this version, the company focused on aesthetics, substantially redesigning a substation enclosure “to better fit with the look and feel of this evolving neighborhood,” said Boericke, one of 12 staffers from the utility at the meeting. The design was the product of months of work with substation engineers, architects and city staff to find a consensus and manage the “complexities and constraints” of the site, including easements and property lines; meeting regulatory, safety and security standards; and accounting for how new foundations will affect existing underground infrastructure.

The new proposal calls for walls on two sides of a roughly triangular site, with space for public art and a design that could be decided through a community process in consultation with the Somerville Arts Council.

The highest of the walls would be along Prospect Street. “Feedback we heard from you was that it was important to have a welcoming view for people coming off the Green Line Extension elevator,” she said. On the Newton Street side of the parcel, which is residential, another wall would reduce noise for the neighbors.

The current view greeting riders of the MBTA green line as they emerge from the Union Square T station. (Photo: Russell Adams)

The Webster Avenue side of the station is the only side without a wall, reflecting structural difficulties but also concerns that a wall might get in the way of some day extending the green line from Union to Porter Square. “We received assurance from the MBTA that this project will not impede any potential future work, [but] wanted no hint of a hindrance,” Boericke said.

Before presenting new design proposals, and in Q&A afterward, Eversource staff explained why the substation couldn’t be moved underground or elsewhere.

Maintaining a continuous electric supply is a regulatory obligation, making any relocation “a conundrum.” Eversource would have to build a new substation before the current one could go out of service, “a process which takes a decade or more,” Boericke said. “In that time, the need for increased electrical capacity will become more urgent … and the proposed third transformer at this site will still be necessary.”

An Eversource rendering shows a view that could greet people emerging from the Union Square T stop elevator.

Eversource is constrained by needing to be “where the load is,” and this station serves the green line T stop across the street, bursting Union Square development as well as additional development to the south and electrification needed for clean-energy initiatives, said Maija Benjamins, director of strategic project development for Eversource. It’s also hard to find new real estate to move to, specially as “the expense and time that it takes to relocate those stations is a lot to put on the shoulders of ratepayers.”

There’s also the issue that moving would require “miles of additional in-street construction,” Boericke said, “unnecessarily adding to construction fatigue” – while an Eversource engineer said it would be essentially impossible to squeeze in a fourth transformer into Union Square, making this the end of the major work in the area.

Cambridge connection

Union Square is only one of the region’s existing substations meant to be connected with a Greater Cambridge Energy Project that includes construction of an underground substation in Kendall Square and the laying of new underground transmission lines.

During a Q&A, resident Jennifer Hilario expressed concern that Cambridge will successfully protest the new Kendall substation “and Somerville will get stuck with the additional transformer.” She wanted Cambridge built first.

While construction around the Kendall substation is underway – and Cambridge opposition to the project has been barely discernible, because its location spared a residential neighborhood from hosting the project – final approvals from the state Energy Facility Siting Board will take significantly longer than adding a transformer to Somerville’s existing substation, Benjamins said.

More homes on the way

Addressing whether a new transformer would increase noise from the site, John Zicko, director of capital projects engineering, said an acoustical consultant has already done several studies that found levels within allowable levels. Transformer technology has changed over the years, and is now “very, very quiet,” he said.

Still, the view on the Webster Street side, where residential buildings are expected to replace a used-car dealership and auto repair shop, was a sticking point for several residents. Union Square Associates, the master developer overseeing 2.7 million square feet of transit-oriented development in the square, has said it plans to replace those single-story businesses with homes, including some affordable housing.

Eversource only recently found out about those plans, Boericke said.

“We certainly don’t want to disproportionately impact any new developments, especially affordable housing,” she said. “We’re looking forward to hearing from you and others and working with [the Massachusetts Department of Transportation] to hopefully find something that will provide a better line of sight.”

Opposing the premise

Union Square resident Tori Antonino said focusing on short-term fixes will only continue the “environmental injustices” that have been imposed on Somerville in the past.

“I don’t want this to be approached as ‘Let’s fix the facade,’ because I don’t think fixing facades is getting to the heart of the problem, which is where are we going to find a concrete place for this to be that is going to serve us in not just the next 10 years, but finding a 50-year plan” that would see the substation moved and replaced with “something for humans,” she said.

This meeting was facilitated by Ward 3 city councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, despite the substation being in Ward 2; the councilor there, J.T. Scott, has been recused from official deliberations on the issue because he owns a Prospect Street CrossFit gym next to the substation. Speaking as a resident and business owner, Scott said he wanted the substation relocated and seemed in disbelief that this project would be the end of the work. “Eversource has decided the most expedient, cost-efficient method is to add a transformer on this site,” but in 10 years “we’ll be exactly in the same situation we’re at, only with even more lab buildings having come online,” Scott said.

Like some other residents who spoke, Scott objected to the lack of a wall on Webster Street, calling it “odd – and I will say, frankly, unfair” that effort and time was instead put into improving the view for people coming from the T station.

But the emphasis on the T comes from resident focus groups, not Eversource, Boericke said.

Much process ahead

Somerville Planning Board approval is needed before Eversource can start construction. Andrew Graminski, of the Somerville Planning Department, said the project needs two special permits and potentially site plan approval – a decision that will come from Inspectional Services and could mean more community meetings and a review by the Urban Design Commission. “As this is a facade around the site, I don’t know if it would constitute a building,” Graminski said.

The point of the Monday meeting was to have hard conversations before the project reached the Planning Board, Ewen-Campen said.

Ewen-Campen said he came out of the February meeting hoping to “use this opportunity” to relocate the substation, and now understood the difficulties. “That might not be to my liking, but I kind of tolerate that fact,” he said.

But the current proposal, considering the concrete wall visible from Webster Avenue, is “just a total nonstarter,” Ewen-Campen said, suggesting to Eversource there should be more improvements to the plan. “You sound committed to working with the neighborhood. I’m really appreciative of that.”

A version of this story appeared on the Somerville Wire.