Saturday, July 20, 2024

A rendering of what the cannabis shop Botania might look like in Ball Square, Somerville. (Image: Peter Quinn Architects via Planning Board)

A proposed cannabis retail shop called Botanica has once again hit a snag in Somerville’s municipal process. In May, the application for the dispensary at 620 Broadway, Ball Square, was continued by the Planning Board due to the city restriping the street near the site, complicating the business’ plans for a required loading zone. While the developer has since worked with the city to create a more comprehensive loading plan, on July 20 the board again continued the application due to an expired zoning variance.

The developer, 620 Broadway LLC, got a hardship variance in 2021 to build a one-story building in a location zoned for three stories. Hardship variances in Massachusetts are issued when zoning laws make conditions difficult for a developer to reasonably use their property.

The developer got an extension on the variance in 2022 and applied for a second before the first one expired in June, city planner Emily Hutchings said. But Planning, Preservation and Zoning are of the opinion the city can extend a variance only once. Now the developer may need to start over and apply for a second one, if it can’t extend the variance from 2021.

Still, “no final determination has been provided” to the developer on how they should proceed, Hutchings said.

Having followed the city’s processes and without a determination on the validity of the hardship variance, the project now sits in a legal gray area. “The applicant could make the argument that they have exercised their rights under the existing hardship variance,” and the current building plans comply, Hutchings said.

Bill Proia, the attorney representing the applicant, agreed, saying their presence before the board meant they were still within rights outlined by the variance. Under normal circumstances, a project that does not have the proper variances would not even get before the board; this project, however, appeared before the board before the variance expired.

Hutchings said the board could move forward with the site plan approval and special permit for the project. Without a variance, though, the developer would be unable to get a building permit even if the board approved the project. Chair Michael Capuano cited this as he cautioned against discussing the project during the meeting.

Any testimony and the planning board’s approval could be invalidated by a negative decision for the new hardship variance, Capuano said, and “I would like [the new information] to be presented to the board at such a time where we have been told that we actually have the authority to vote on some of these issues.”

Members voted unanimously in agreement with Capuano and continued the application to Thursday.

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Medford Street housing approved

A second project catching flak from Capuano after major changes (“How is this even considered a major amendment, not a completely new project?” he asked in June) was discussed July 20: a proposed housing development called The Onyx at 16-20 Medford St., between the Inner Belt and Cambridge’s Inman Square. It had submitted major changes such as axing 31 parking spaces and increasing the number of units by 10.

This time the developer, Somerville Living LLC, received much more positive feedback from the board and community. City councilor JT Scott said: “Speaking as the councilor and as a neighbor, I am fully supportive of approving this project this evening,” praising the developer for being responsive to the community and signing a community-benefits agreement on the project. Planning Board clerk Erin Geno called it a “strong project.”

The current design includes 10 affordable dwelling units compared with two in the originally proposed plan, with two three-bedroom units, 10 with two bedrooms, 28 with one bedrooms and 10 studios, for a total 50 units. This marks a 25 percent increase in two-bedroom units from the developer’s last proposal. The building will include bike parking, including larger spaces for cargo bikes.

The ground floor of the development will include commercial space.

According to a staff memo, the project will provide only a dozen parking spaces for a building with bedrooms for well over 60 people, and residents will be ineligible for street parking. Capuano asked the board whether the board’s position, in general, should be to grant parking reliefs to projects that, like The Onyx, lie outside of “transit zones” close to MBTA hubs, in line with Somerville’s goal to reduce the amount of cars in the city.

Parking relief should still be on a case-by-case basis, said vice chair Amelia Aboff, who supported granting relief for this project. “I don’t think I would agree that should be the board’s position … universally in non-transit zones,” she said, citing geography and transit connectivity as potential issues to examine in each case.

Staff from Somerville’s mobility department also allayed concerns around prospective tenants who already have cars: a condition of the building’s approval includes written notice to prospective tenants that most residents would not have parking available. Planner Andrew Graminski also noted that, under most circumstances, residents of affordable dwelling units could get permits regardless of permissions granted to the building.

The board approved the parking relief and changes to the building unanimously.

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In other development news:

  • The board continued an application at 366 Broadway for a mid-rise apartment building in the Winter Hill neighborhood. The building will be four stories and would include a proposed 58 units, more than half of which would be studios. Neighbors near this project took issue with the unit mix, saying more should be two- or three-bedroom units fit for families. Aboff agreed, saying zoning for mid-rise apartment buildings prioritizes family-sized units. “I have a lot of problems with this building. I just feel like a lot of developers are coming in and making a killing on us,” said Tori Antonino, chair of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, in a public comment.
  • MIT topped off a large graduate residence hall that will house 676 students, BldUp reported July 21. The West Campus Graduate Residence will include a public space that will lead to the Fort Washington Historic District and Park. The building is slated for completion in 2024.