Sunday, June 16, 2024

Massing studies for the lab buildings proposed for 200 McGrath Highway in Somerville’s Union Square. (Image: Stantec)

Neighbors of a massive development at 200 McGrath Highway in Somerville were leery before its approval April 6 by the Planning Board, and now they say they have even more questions.

Leaders of the Union Square Neighborhood Council said Tuesday that they have put together a citizen’s petition to require a City Council public hearing on transparency in city government, mainly on issues around 200 McGrath. The petition – with current and former elected officials among the minimum 50 signers – is expected to be submitted as soon as Wednesday, said Andy Greenspon, co-chair of the council.

The neighborhood group wants a full council hearing toward the end of May “to speak to the lack of transparency,” including whether Mayor Katjana Ballantyne signed “secret covenants” with real estate developers, Greenspon said in an email. The lack of in-person meetings around 200 McGrath that was scheduled by the Planning Board is another issue, as it has been for neighbors over the past few months.

The board’s approval of a master plan development at 200 McGrath Highway came despite heavy criticism and concern from neighbors, particularly those living in the nearby Brickbottom Artists Association building as well as USNC members. Several other stakeholders in the area, including members of local construction unions and the Somerville Community Corp., have expressed support for the project.

The project

The proposed Gateway Innovation Center by Union Square’s master developer, Union Square Station Associates, includes two lab buildings totaling 980,000 square feet with 4,500 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, covering just over 3 acres. The currently unused lot is flanked by Medford Street on its east and Somerville Avenue Extension and McGrath Highway on the north and west.

Given traffic the project by US2 is expected to bring, it will require the construction of three thoroughfares: an alley to connect Somerville Avenue Extension and Medford Street, a street dead-ending before the green line and commuter rail tracks for pedestrians and loading of the buildings, and a second alley to provide access to the plan’s proposed 588 underground parking spaces. The project will partially depend on plans by the state Department of Transportation to ground McGrath Highway near the site.

During a Feb. 16 meeting, representatives from US2 and Stantec Architecture outlined how the plan had changed from its original proposal in 2020, when developer Capital Hall owned the land. These changes include axing one of the three originally proposed buildings and reducing the height of Building A to 12 stories from 20 while increasing the height of Building B to 16 stories from 14. More than a half-million square feet were sheared from the original project.

Concerns about size

USNC, which negotiates community benefits agreements with developers in Union Square, said in a letter to the Planning Board that these changes would not be enough.

“The current proposed design … continues to be too big, would contribute to an impossibly congested Medford Street and has generated intense opposition from residential abutters,” the letter said, stressing intertwined issues that the group and Brickbottom residents identified in meetings: the project being out of scale with the neighborhood, and expected traffic.

The addition of 588 parking spaces would encourage car use in addition to developments at Boynton Yards and other life-sciences buildings proposed on McGrath Highway, the USNC and BrickBottom residents say. The developers and Somerville’s mobility team anticipate that the project would add 3,600 trips by car per day.

The neighborhood group said US2’s “consultants severely underestimate the number and rate of intersection failure, even as they leave out a critical intersection at Cambridge and Warren streets in Cambridge. Existing congestion on Medford Street, where their 588-car garage empties out, would be substantially exacerbated,” adding that the previous developer’s study on traffic predicted “infinite” wait times at some intersections.

The traffic congestion will lead to increased pollution, contributing to potential health problems, the groups said Feb. 16.

Residents of BrickBottom, a former cannery, were worried about how the towers would loom over them. Artist Kim Schmahmann noted in a 2022 letter to the Planning Board that the height of the larger proposed building would be around “3.8 cannery buildings stacked on top of each other.”

Meetings and community benefits

Issues around the number of meetings have been long-standing. While US2 says it has hosted five public meetings on the project, residents say only one in August was held consistent with the staff memo submitted to the Planning Board.

The previous meetings count toward the requirement, Ward 3 City Councilor Ewen-Campen said in an interview, and a city staff memo to the Planning Board notes that master plan special permits require only one neighborhood meeting until later planning stages.

In the Feb. 16 meeting Ewen-Campen did, however, express concern over an apparent lack of communication between the developer and the surrounding community. He urged the developer to hold more neighborhood meetings and consider signing a community benefits agreement  to help put residents at ease.

Planning Board chair Michael Capuano agreed, while noting that the board does not have the authority to add a negotiated CBA as a requirement.

The developer’s case

As the Planning Board prepared to vote, Greg Karczewski, president of US2, presented a case for the project. “Supporters included residents, business owners, abutters, a local nonprofit and members of organized labor who are currently working with US2 in Union Square and who are excited by the possibility of continuing to work in Somerville on the project,” he said. “Over a three-year period, the project master plan has been refined in response to stakeholder feedback received.”

In Feb. 16 and April 6 meetings, Karczewski said the project would create $23 million in community benefits. Some were outlined in boilerplate letters sent by workers with Bent Electrical Contractors, represented by IBEW Local 103: “US2’s record of hiring local union workers has been great for Bent Electric Contractors and other union trade companies in Somerville. The project is designed as a commercial development and will be taxed at the commercial tax rate. It will produce substantial tax revenue in keeping with the city’s plan to shift the tax base. Further, the project will create 2,300 construction jobs and an additional 3,000 permanent jobs once completed.”

The electrical contractors’ statement is at odds with what other unions have experienced with US2’s overall Union Square Revitalization Project. Members of the Painters and Allied Trades Union District Council 35 have picketed near the site, encouraging residents to demand more local jobs in accordance with a community benefits agreement emerging from the Union Square Covenant of 2017.

Approval of the plan

Director of Somerville’s Planning, Preservation and Zoning Division Sarah Lewis joined the April 6 meeting outlining meetings that took place between project neighbors and city staff.

Lewis spoke mostly to points outlined in a March 24 supplemental memo submitted by city staff to the Planning Board after a March 15 meeting between planning staff, Ewen-Campen, at-large councilor Jake Wilson and neighborhood groups. According to the meeting minutes, BrickBottom residents and the USNC reiterated concerns about traffic and scale, as well as the lack of communication

The memo shows city staff responding to residents’ concerns by setting additional conditions such as signs that will discourage cars from entering BrickBottom’s Fitchburg Street.

During the April 6 meeting, the Planning Board initially continued the application to a later meeting pending US2’s negotiation of a covenant with the city. Around two hours in, though, the covenant was signed and the Planning Board approved the Master Plan Special Permit.

More to come

According to Ewen-Campen, a master plan development such as this does not include as many fine details as other proposals the Planning Board might hear, being concerned more with infrastructure, its relationship to Somerville’s comprehensive plan called SomerVision, and the overall scale of the project.

Therefore, following this master plan special permit approval, US2 still faces several stages of site plan review that will include additional meetings with the Planning Board on the specifics of buildings and roads.

The project was not perfect and could not accommodate everyone’s needs, Capuano said, but there was still cause for enthusiasm about the project, saying “the applicant has done an admirable job” working with the neighborhood and the community.

Alyson Schultz of BrickBottom disagrees. “The 200-plus residents of [BrickBottom], now nearly 40 years in existence, will be shouldering the future traffic and quality of life impacts of 200 McGrath. Our residents’ concerns apparently carried no weight with Somerville’s Planning and Zoning.”