Monday, July 22, 2024

There will be other events and issues that strike the 90,000 hearts and nervous systems of Somerville residents as the best or worst things to happen in or to their city over the past 12 months. Some may feel one way or another about an election that rewarded incumbents after seeing a number of other incumbents walk away from the race. Others may be thinking of the city’s lurching attempts to set the future of the Armory arts building since seizing it in 2021; planners started over last summer after the only options they offered turned out to be hugely unpopular. The clearing of the former firehouse in Union Square for safety concerns, displacing two longtime city nonprofits, may matter to some. Feel empowered to post your own events in the comments. Here are a top five best and worst stories out of Somerville this year to get the memories flowing.

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The best of Somerville in 2023

Workers remove the last bit of construction fencing from Somerville’s Community Path Extension at 7 a.m. June 10. (Photo: City of Somerville via Twitter)

The Community Path opens

After multiple monthlong delays atop a multiyear delay, the long-awaited Community Path opened June 10, a dramatic expansion of one opened in 1985 that ran approximately 1.3 miles into 3.2 miles with access to new stations on the MBTA green line at Magoun Square, Gilman Square, East Somerville and in Cambridge at Lechmere Station. By connecting with the 10-mile Minuteman Trail built in 1991 from the Alewife T station in Cambridge to Bedford Depot, the path can bring users as far as that woodsy town beyond Lexington, as well as into Downtown Boston. It also makes connections to the 26 miles of bike paths along the Charles River.

Opening day saw hundreds of Somerville residents visiting in celebration. There was online gratification too as city councilor Jake Wilson changed the answer on his ”Is the Community Path open?” page to “YES.”

“The community path is of course a critical part of the region’s transportation system, but in Somerville, it’s also a unique part of our social fabric and the open space network we envisioned for all to enjoy and use,” Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne told Cambridge Day over the summer.

Ward 7 councilor Judy Pineda Neufeld, a new mom and a runner, said the path has been a game-changer. “Constituents have told me how their commute to Boston has changed overnight. They’re primarily on a safe and faster path; they don’t fear for their lives every minute of their commute. Folks that were hesitant to bike to work are now hitting the stores for helmets. It’s a reliable mode for transportation when the green line extension hasn’t been as reliable as hoped.” (More on the green line later.)

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A performance at PorchFest 2019 in Somerville. (Photo: KrisNM via Flickr)

PorchFest keeps popping

More than 350 bands took to impromptu stages citywide for Somerville’s 12th PorchFest on May 13, playing on porches and in driveways and front yards of homes and other gathering spaces in three big blocs traversing the city map from west to east. It’s “not a festival per se,” according to the Somerville Arts Council website – perhaps an effort to tame crowd expectations and behavior – but the city’s biggest party sure feels like one. That said, its decentralized footprint and DIY spirit sets it apart from other local music festivals and parties, particularly commercial ones.

“There aren’t a lot of homegrown events around,” said Jon Wallis, guitarist for Hereboy, an indie-rock group. “I don’t feel like anyone’s trying to take advantage of me. There’s no financial incentive for any of this. It’s people with a love of music, going out and enjoying themselves.”

With the closing of venues such as Once and Thunder Road, arts council director Greg Jenkins said he’s asked why the city doesn’t do multiple PorchFest events in a year to support local music. While leaders seek ways to support nightlife and “are exploring how we can develop music rehearsal spaces to support local musicians,” Jenkins said, “There are many other areas to support beyond expanding PorchFest itself.”

The holidays only come once a year. PorchFest is no exception.

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State Rep. Mike Connolly at a press conference in front of the State House in Boston on Sept. 6. (Photo: Matt Rocha)

Asking for rent stabilization

Somerville made a historic move in approving a home rule petition Dec. 14 to enact rent stabilization locally. Facing a national housing crisis, advocates are looking to reverse a state ban in place since 1994. There’s been little appetite for reversing the legislation on Beacon Hill, and a recent campaign to place rent control on the 2024 ballot fell through after the state’s progressives were divided on strategy.

But the move will reignite pressure on the Legislature to consider a local option for rent control, for which Gov. Maura Healey has expressed support multiple times. Public polling data shows the public is primed. Surveys this year by Northwind Strategies and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found 65 percent and 71 percent of voters, respectively, would support rent control legislation.

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The Jaques-Heath-Broadway hillside in Somerville. (Photo: Eric Kilby via Flickr)

Triple-Deckers return to ’Ville

Three is a magic number! Somerville voted this year to remove affordability requirements for triple-deckers and third units on a lot, effectively “relegalizing” the city’s signature housing style after a zoning overhaul may have stifled development.

“This was also the easiest way to comply with the MBTA Communities Act,” Ward 1 councilor Matt McLaughlin said, referring to a 2021 law requiring Massachusetts cities to adopt zoning codes that encourage multifamily housing within a half-mile of an MBTA station.

The council hopes that lifting the affordability requirement will encourage construction. “It’s going to be the best way to add units to an already dense city without imposing on communities,” McLaughlin said. “Somerville alone doing this is not a big deal, but we’re talking about tens of thousands of units. You go around this community already, most places are already two-family units. If you allow a third unit, it will all add up,” McLaughlin said.

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The sign found Sept. 3 on the door of Dragon Pizza in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Dragon Pizza versus Barstool

Somerville went viral this year – meaning thousands of folks imbued meaning or significance into a piece of content by tapping their thumbs against screens – after Dragon Pizza owner Charlie Redd and Barstool professional douche Dave Portnoy went at it Aug. 31 on a Davis Square sidewalk. This reporter is obligated to write about it as this list has a tinge of “virality” to its criteria. You can dig up the video, but let the record show, this is listed as a win because Dragon Pizza reportedly sold out of pizza for multiple days following the incident. Good for them.

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The worst of Somerville in 2023

Somerville’s Winter Hill School, seen in September 2016. (Photo: City Year via Flickr)

Winter Hill school problems

Families and students at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School endured a difficult year, starting with the building closing unexpectedly June 1 after a piece of concrete fell from a stairwell ceiling. Built in the 1970s, the Winter Hill was already in disrepair, and the community was already waiting for a redevelopment plan. As the community pressed to accelerate those plans, Winter Hill students were shuffled over to the Edgerly Building, the Capuano Early Childhood Center and, momentarily, Tufts University’s Olin Hall.

This summer, inspectors confirmed the building was filled with hazardous materials and the construction would create too disruptive of an environment for the students to move back in during the redevelopment. Classes that moved to the Edgerly Education Building will be there “at least the next four to five years” while the district assesses next steps, superintendent Ruben Carmona said, At a Dec. 19 meeting, the city reviewed findings from its enrollment study to ensure new construction will fit the needs of Somerville students for decades. So while it’s been a grueling year for Winter Hill families, work is underway.

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A car nears a pothole on Highland Avenue in Somerville on Nov. 20. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Never change, Highland Avenue

“When people say fix the road, they mean Highland Ave.,” councilor Charlotte Kelly said at a Public Utilities Committee meeting in November.

Yup, Somerville’s rocky road is still bumpy as ever and will have to wait until 2027 for a full repave, according to an October memo issued by Somerville’s director of engineering. In the meantime, Highland will be repaved between Central and Walnut streets sometime after June, but ongoing work will prevent a full reconstruction with possible bike lanes. Until then, Eversource will continue transforming this road to resemble your favorite pair of patchwork pants.

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The Union Square Station on the MBTA green line on July 3, a few days before closing for repairs. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Just stop, green line extension

MBTA riders were championed this month as Bostonians of the Year by The Boston Globe, but the award felt compensatory at best. Five long-promised green line extension stations opened Dec. 12, 2022, extending from the Lechmere stop in Cambridge to end at College Avenue in Medford (and preceded March 21, 2022, by a spur to Union Square) and seemed to mark a historic victory for the city. But its realization has been less than ideal for transit riders.

Attempting to fit a year’s worth of Somerville’s trials and tribulations with the MBTA into a year-end wrap-up is a tall order. But the gist is, folks find it slow, unreliable, dangerous, poorly engineered, etc. (You can doomscroll for a while). While business owners waited for a green line bump that justified rising real estate prices and the T took another half a year to post maps on trains proving the GLX stops existed, it didn’t take long for service to stop completely for repairs, then for word to come that the MBTA will need to “redo or repair most of the tracks on the extension” for the line to be fully functional, as HorizonMass reported with a timeline of the shutdowns and setbacks from June to December.

The MBTA estimates it needs $24.5 billion to repair its transit system. If you’ve never considered buying an e-bike …

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Ed Halloran speaks at a City Council meeting Oct. 27 in a screen capture from Somerville city video.

City workers are out a contract

The Somerville Municipal Employees Association has been without a contract since June 2022, leading to staffing shortages in some of the city’s most essential jobs – work that literally and figuratively keep the lights on – and outsourcing by the administration to make up for it. That is “costing the city 1.5 to two times the wage rate of union jobs,” in the words of Ward 5 councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad

The association reported in November that several more union workers had resigned while awaiting a resolution to wage negotiations with the city. More than 90 employees have left their jobs this year, leaving at least 40 vacancies, according to a social media post from SMEA published in November.

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The Sligo Pub in Somerville’s Davis Square on Nov. 8, 2005. (Photo: Jill Robidoux via Flickr)

An Irish goodbye: Sligo closes

Davis Square’s historic Irish dive, Sligo Pub, closed in June after plans to redevelop the site into a four-story lab and commercial space were approved. Sligo Pub was a neighborhood staple complete with inexplicable smells, graffitied walls and cheap pints. The pub began as Pat Connolley’s at its founding more than 75 years ago, according to the website, becoming Mahoney’s and finally the Sligo – the county its latest owners immigrated from.

Happy 2024, Somerville. See you at The Burren.