Saturday, July 20, 2024

Plans for The Onyx at 16-20 Medford St., Somerville, have changed significantly since September. (Image: Khalsa)

Tensions over Somerville Planning Board powers emerged in two items at a June 1 meeting, including one in which members were taken by surprise by big changes to a project last seen in September.

After hearing only the introduction of a housing development proposal for The Onyx at 16-20 Medford St., between the Inner Belt and Cambridge’s Inman Square, chair Michael Capuano interrupted to ask: “How is this even considered a major amendment, not a completely new project?” The question was directed at the developers and Somerville’s planning staff at the meeting.

In the updated plan, an underground parking garage is removed; the number of units increases to 51 from 41, with more one-bedroom apartments and studios but fewer two-bedrooms; and the units are to be rentals instead of for-sale condos.

“If I was a neighbor to this project, I would say this is not at all what came to us in any sort of formal neighborhood meeting,” Capuano said, wondering how such a major amendment took the board by surprise and whether additional public processes were involved.

In Somerville law, the director of zoning determines whether a change in plan is a major amendment, city planner Emily Hutchings said. Major amendments do require a neighborhood meeting – and for this project, the additional meeting was Feb. 27. The Planning Board could determine whether more public processes were needed, Hutchings said.

Capuano was satisfied, but still questioned the developer as to why the plan changed so drastically.

Issues with the site and housing market influenced the change, representatives said. The high water table below the site made the construction of an underground parking garage difficult, for example, so the idea was scrapped.

Co-chair of the Union Square Neighborhood Council Tori Antonino praised the developer for ongoing communication with the council and neighbors, as well as efforts to provide affordable housing, which Capuano acknowledged.

Comments from the board and public seemed generally in favor of the project, but the Planning Board requested additional neighborhood meetings and continued the application to Thursday – if the developer was able to organize a neighborhood meeting before then.

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Hold on a cannabis shop

A proposed adult-use cannabis dispensary to be called Botanica at 620 Broadway, in Somerville’s Ball Square, led to a similar run-in.

Hutchings told the board that Somerville’s Mobility Division was continuing to work with the developer on a loading plan and street restriping that will “need more additional review and details than what’s typically necessary.”

That’s due largely to conditions placed on the developer by the city: There must be a loading zone within 300 feet of the store, and signs and pavement markings must be updated to ensure the safety of cyclists and pedestrians and discourage illegal parking. This section of Broadway and its intersection with Winchester are undergoing redesign and improvements, including removing a curb that originally would have served as the retailer’s loading zones, mobility planner Greg Hanafin said.

Though Hutchings assured that the mobility team was comfortable with the Planning Board moving forward with the application, despite changes being unresolved, Capuano remained unconvinced. “Effectively we would be delegating our discretion in reviewing the loading zone issue as well as some of the signage matters,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of ceding the Planning Board’s authority to have a full review by mobility that the Planning Board can review. That is our purview.”

Vice chair Amelia Aboff agreed, particularly noting that the presence of armored car pickups for cash and marijuana adding to the difficulty of the site: Armored cars are large, and the additional security required makes the loading slower.

An attorney for the applicant asked that the board move forward with conditional approval, denying the application later if the Mobility Division’s updated plan didn’t work. Capuano pushed back, asking why the developer had not addressed the loading issue when it was last brought up in March.

The board voted to continue the application to Thursday’s meeting.

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Transforming a substation

An Eversource transformer facade reviewed June 1 by the Somerville Planning Board.

The board approved a transformer by Eversource for 51 Prospect St., Union Square, complete with nearby native plantings and several large paintings by local artists. This is the third transformer at Eversource’s Prospect Street Substation and “urgently needed,” according to Meredith Boericke of Eversource, “to serve development that is either planned, already approved or under construction in areas such as Boynton Yards and Union Square.”

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Plans on outdated flood maps

A rendering for 48-50 Bishop Allen Drive, Central Square, reviewed Thursday by Cambridge’s Planning Board.

A plan to demolish an 11-home building in Central Square and put up one with 22 was continued by Cambridge’s Planning Board on Thursday to a future meeting. The Planning Board had multiple questions and comments about plans for 48-50 Bishop Allen Drive near Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street, first presented three years ago and working from now-outdated flood maps. Vice chair Catherine Preston Connolly noted feeling frustrated: “We have a design that hasn’t apparently changed in three years despite feedback from CDD, from DPW, from the neighbors, and yet it’s clear that changes are required,” she said, referring to the Community Development and Public Works departments. Other members agreed – the design of the building could change completely when drawn around updated flood plans – and chided developer Dobia Properties for a lack of community engagement, particularly with the nearby Elks Lodge.

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Parking lot problems by Porter

A rendering of what 2161 Massachusetts Ave. could look like near Cambridge’s Porter Square. (Image: Khalsa)

A redevelopment of 2161 Massachusetts Ave. by the Nelson Group was also continued by Cambridge’s Planning Board on Thursday. The proposal is to move and expand the former two-story American Friends Service Committee office building near Porter Square, creating a mixed-use building with eight housing units, office space on the ground floor and seven parking spaces. The Planning Board called the parking lot too small to accommodate all seven, which the developer proposed after meetings with abutters concerned about where residents would park. The board suggested some spaces be cut or the lot redesigned.