Friday, July 19, 2024

An auto body shop at 45 Mystic Ave. is expected to be torn down for a seven-story incubator lab space. (Image: Google)

A stretch of Mystic Avenue around Assembly Square is so industrial, polluted and unfriendly to pedestrians that a development will be allowed to eliminate plans for a pocket park and move required civic space off-site, the Somerville Zoning Board of Appeals decided June 5.

Boston Pinnacle Properties presented its variance request for 45 Mystic Ave. to build about 51,000 square feet and seven stories to become incubator lab space for small startups and an eventual “employment hub.”

When the plan arrived before the Planning Board in October to go into what staff deemed a “high outdoor heat exposure” zone, it included significant amounts of green space and shading from vegetation and overhangs.

After multiple design attempts, the idea has turned out to be “impractical,” said Anne Vigorito, the firm’s lawyer.

The Mystic Avenue site does not work well for civic space: it’s right next to Interstate 93 and several industrial facilities, which would make it a loud and unwelcoming environment. It would also be difficult to provide a large enough space within this relatively small parcel.

The site is occupied by an auto body shop, which would be torn down.

“Not only would the petitioner struggle with managing the space amidst heavy traffic and a lack of sunlight, but both the public and building residents would face usability challenges. Users would find the space to be loud, unsafe,” Vigorito said. “Pollutants in the air, for anyone like me who suffers from severe allergies, makes it much worse.”

It would be more beneficial to Somerville residents to grant a variance that allows the firm to contribute into a fund going toward civic space elsewhere, Vigorito suggested. The zoning was intended to provide more accessible green areas to residents, but civic space for this project in its highly industrial location would not help advance that goal, she said.

Resident use at 45 Mystic is “incompatible with its environment,” she said.

Board agrees

Zoning board member Ann Fullerton agreed, saying the area by Interstate 93 is too disconnected with the Assembly Row development and “would actually end up being a fairly unsafe space for the public to use.”

“I don’t see a problem with it,” board chair Orsola Susan Fontano said of a variance to the green space requirement. “The people aren’t going to want to sit there.”

Vice chair Anne Brockelman asked about removal of the pocket park, noting it provided setback from the adjacent lawn. The proposal does involve a 3-foot buffer on each side, and Somerville does not require setbacks on the side or the back.

Boston Pinnacle Properties hopes that that stretch of Mystic Avenue will eventually fill in with other buildings, creating a more continuous urban wall. With elimination of the pocket park, the building will be the same size but seven stories instead of 10, the height in the initial proposal last fall.

The board voted unanimously to approve the request.

The City of Somerville Public Space and Urban Forestry staff will determine what amount of payment would be appropriate, staff said. This payment would go toward providing green space elsewhere in Somerville.

“It’s not a pedestrian-friendly area at all,” board member Zachary Zaremba said of putting green space in that part of Mystic Avenue. “There’s no potential for it to be in its current form.”