Saturday, July 20, 2024

Somerville city councilor J.T. Scott speaks at a Sept. 25 presentation for an expansion plan at the Somernova complex. (Photo: Ryan DiLello)

Somernova wants to build an additional 1.6 million square feet of space focused on climate tech onto its innovation campus off Somerville Avenue. A 10-year development plan, which includes a community center, was shared during a public meeting Sept. 25 that drew more than 100 people to Somernova’s community space, The Dojo.

While Collin Yip, managing director of owner Rafi Properties, touted the community-driven aspects of the development, the required zoning revisions, lack of housing and potential for added pollution gave many residents pause – Somerville has been presented with a long-awaited community center, but at what cost?

The community-focused aspects of the development include a $30 million community center, up to nearly 12,000 new jobs (roughly half in construction) and an additional $5.5 million donated to the local jobs trust. The plan also pledges $27.9 million to the Affordable Housing Trust and notes the benefits of new green tech for the local economy and climate.

In what was described by Somernova as a $3.3 billion plan, Somernova would go from a 7.4-acre campus of relatively low-slung buildings to 1.9 million square feet, according to a 468-page planning document on the center’s website. Of that, within the footprint of five large buildings would stand 1.4 million square feet of commercial space. Another 68,086 would be retail; 36,200 would be for community services; and 4,424 is set aside for the arts. Three “district-serving” underground parking lots would hold 1,252 vehicle spaces, with another 102 aboveground and 296 long-term indoor bike parking spaces. There would be 50 street trees added, which Somernova calls a 142 percent increase.

A Somernova graphic suggests how its campus might look after expansion.

The plan was drafted based on more than 8,000 community conversations over the past five years, Somernova said.

Many residents noted shortfalls.

Despite its prime location, the development does not include much-needed housing. Asked why by one resident, Yip noted it was against zoning rules. But multiple attendees noted quickly that Somernova’s plans called for a rezoning anyway.

The excess of a thousand parking spaces left residents questioning the company’s environmental integrity and raised concerns over traffic on an already-congested Somerville Ave.

“Zero parking is absolutely possible in Somerville. You’re looking to build in a transit-oriented zone. For a green-tech company, this is very hard to take seriously,” resident Alexander Friedan said.

Multiple residents advocated for additional public transportation: an commuter rail stop – a line runs behind the Somernova campus – or a shuttle up and down Somerville Avenue.

Effects of a 10-year plan

Many neighbors expressed concerns over how the development might affect rent in the area and asked how the neighborhood would endure 10 years of construction.

Beyond the noise, Jana Ferguson, an adviser to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, noted that Somerville has significantly higher asthma diagnosis rates due to poor air quality. “It’s not just a matter of what we’ll get at the end of this, but what we’ll go through to get it will really impact the health of the neighborhood.”

One of the major roadblocks to the project lies in zoning. Somernova’s campus is within a fabrication district, a type of zoning passed in 2019 to preserve historic buildings and key assets to the city’s creative economy. To build, the company will need approval from the city to exceed a four-story-building limit and demolish multiple historic manufacturing buildings. Somernova must also defend the proposed ratio of incubator-to-“arts and creative enterprise” spaces.

Under the proposed plan, less than 5,000 of the nearly 2 million square feet of additional development will be designated for arts and creative enterprise. The Arts Space Risk Assessment Report from 2020 that provided the city with guidance on how to preserve and grow its arts spaces recommended developers reserve 5 percent to 10 percent of proposed space for arts and creative enterprise use. Somernova’s plan has 0.25 percent set aside.

Unanswered questions

Ethan Dussault owns New Alliance, a recording studio in the basement of the Milk Row building and volunteers for Art Stays Here, an anti-displacement coalition for artists. Dussault expressed worry about the precedent the development could set.

“The fabrication district is incredibly important to this community. If we create a practice that removes artists or uproots zoning, it’s going to further destabilize arts in Somerville everywhere. It puts us all at risk,” Dussault said.

The future of neighborhood staples Aeronaut Brewery and the climbing center called The Bouldering Project are also uncertain. A drafted image of the courtyard shows Aeronaut Brewery on the first level of the Block 2 building, but Yip could not confirm plans for the tenant when asked for details.

Voices in support

After hours of debate over how the development might affect the neighborhood, whether Somernova was sufficiently giving back to the community and how it was fulfilling its professed eco-minded ideals, attendees drifted toward the doors. That’s when Kevin Lenz Dodin, a senior staff member at the Mystic Learning Center, spoke in favor of the community center.

“This space,” Dodin said, gesturing around Somernova’s Dojo Room, “has provided a lot of safety. I’d love to see more spaces for youth here. I’ve lost a lot of friends, and these spaces provide so many ways for kids to get involved,” he said, mentioning open-mic events and Lego robotics programming meets.

Linda Kelley, a mental health consultant at the Learning Center, echoed Dodin’s points. “These community centers never seem to work when the city runs them. I’ve started them in Medford, in Malden – they never seem to work. I’ve been in Somerville for over 40 years. I’ve watched kids become passionate with what they’re doing [at Somernova] and from my nonprofit standpoint, I’m grateful. I’ve dealt with suicides, fentanyl, overdoses. They are here because they care. To finally have someone come into this city and say we care about the youth … It’s been a very long night, you all have a battle to fight, but please keep in mind the small battle I’m hoping to win for the city,” Kelley said.