Thursday, July 18, 2024

Somerville city councilor J.T. Scott speaks about proposed zoning at a Tuesday meeting in Union Square. (Photo: Ryan DiLello)

In a compromise to address a proposed a $3.3 billion redevelopment and expansion at the Somernova tech and business campus, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said Tuesday that she is considering adding an “innovation” category to the city’s commercial zoning, of which fabrication is a part.

On a wintry night, Somerville residents slipped and slid through a frozen Union Square to gather in one of it remaining music spaces, Warehouse XI, to hear an update from planners and members of the Arts Council on the future of the fabrication district, the city’s zoning for the arts.

The meeting drew 100 or so people in the room and online, many affiliated with an #ArtStaysHere coalition and wary, to learn about the possible leveraging of zoning code to protect the arts amid growing pressure from space-hungry developers.

Rafi Properties, owners of Somernova, in December proposed a 10-year project for its business complex off Somerville Avenue that would grow it to 1.9 million square feet by adding: 1.1 million of research and development uses; 333,000 square feet of office space; 77,000 square feet of arts and creative enterprise space, 84,200 square feet of retail space; and 80,000 square feet of open space.

Under current zoning, none of that’s possible. The site sits in the city’s largest contiguous “fab” (for fabrication) zoned area for the arts, where institutions include Milk Row Studios and the New Alliance Audio and Gallery.

Rafi Properties has proposed carving out zoning called the Climate & Equity Innovation Sub-Area Overlay District, which would enable the developer to build its former factory campus to the full planned extent, including the right to go up to 16 stories.

In the city’s compromise, Rafi Properties wouldn’t get that height, and would instead be held to a four-story maximum on a slightly smaller footprint. Housing would be forbidden.

The amount of fab-zoned space would still shrink, though.

Arts space crisis

The city’s arts scene already faces a crisis – in space, in funds, in resources – documented anecdotally by local journalism and mathematically by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in its 2021 Arts Space Risk Assessment Report.

Fabrication zoning, as created in a 2019 ordinance, exists to “protect buildings that are key assets to the creative economy of Somerville from residential conversation” and “to preserve existing workspace and to retain incubator spaces for start-up, entry- and midlevel business.”

As the Somerville Arts Council works with city planners to tighten those zoning definitions, particularly the arts and creative enterprise designation, the future of Somernova would slip into “a gray area of interpretation” of whether its innovative-but-officelike operations qualify, city planner Andrew Graminski said.

Place in the city’s economy,

Two kinds of creativity compete for space in Somerville’s fabrication land, and the city is trying to reconcile or at least balance the two. The “innovation” district would provide quality commercial spaces and permit light and moderate industry or commercial uses “common to the science-based innovation economy and support commercial activities,” a summary document from councilor J.T. Scott said.

Some attendees expressed skepticism over whether this was a well-thought out amendment to the fabrication zoning based on a holistic analysis of the city’s infrastructural and economic needs, or if it was a reaction to Rafi Properties. The two planners in attendance, Graminski and director Sara Lewis, were called on to answer.

“You’re doing this so a private company won’t leave Somerville,” artist Dan Coughlin said. 

“Not exactly, we just want to make sure [Somernova] has a place in the city’s economy,” Graminski said. 

Standard for tenants

One attendee said he was concerned about the size of company the city was playing to, with some beyond the scope of even the fab zoning’s “midlevel” tier.

The comment was about a Somernova tenant that creates energy storage systems, Form Energy.

“Form Energy is a billion-dollar unicorn. They’re not a small startup trying to tackle climate change. That kind of a company is going to outgrow space very quickly and move so fast – that’s not the standard we should build around,” the attendee said. “We should have dozens of small climate tech companies trying to come up with solutions instead of catering to one extremely large, half-billion dollar-funded company so that we have more local startup efforts.”

The attendee spoke during public comment without giving his full name, but said he has worked out of Greentown Labs for 10 years. (The Somernova-set climate-tech startup incubator is on ground level along Somerville Avenue, but in the Rafi plan would move into tower space in a 13-story building.)