Monday, July 22, 2024

A rendering of The Alley, an arts-focused area in a proposed expansion of Somerville’s Somernova campus. (Image: Rafi Properties)

A refiled, smaller expansion plan for the Somernova tech and business campus hasn’t won over the Union Square Neighborhood Council, but discussions around the new version have begun and a plan for regular meetings starting in July is called encouraging.

The council and representatives of Rafi Properties, owner of Somernova, met Monday to talk about transit concerns. It’s one of a few big issues the neighborhood group has with building up the 7.4-acre property along Somerville Avenue between Porter and Union squares to become a 1.6 million-square-foot complex with labs, retail, homes and the arts. The council identified other main concerns as scale, art space and open space.

“It was a welcome, good initial meeting,” said Matthias Rudolf, a council co-chair, on Wednesday. “We were especially encouraged by their iterative planning model that says after each building we’ll go through and see what’s working and change the plan as needed.”

The zoning amendment would also permit Rafi to include uses prohibited in its fabrication districts, such as data centers and cannabis stores, the group said in a June 4 press release. “We’re opposed to the project in its current form. We don’t think the proposal is a good fit for Somerville,” Rudolf said at the time. “It’s too large, and it doesn’t actually help artists.” 

Though concerns remain, Rudolf had softened somewhat by Wednesday: “I like the big ideas, I liked the wanting to create a environment that is much less car dependent, that is much more environmentally conscious, that features bike riding and a shuttle service. But a lot of it seems to the council to be quite aspirational. They’re talking about adding a T station. How long would that take?”

Talking about transit …

Rafi’s refiled plan removed 40 percent of the parking spaces from the original and would make Somernova “transit ready” to connect to a MBTA train stop that it would build. It notes there is already campus access via 83 and 87 buses, as well as having two T stops within walking distance; the neighborhood council says the site is not well served by public transportation and already has issues with gridlock.

“How do you get people in and out?” USNC co-chair Michèle Hansen said.

The council is concerned the proposal will have an impact not only on the direct abutters in Ward 2 but on traffic throughout Somerville, despite the revised proposal’s reductions. “We’re concerned about the density,” Rudolf said.

City traffic studies extend only a couple of intersections, so the larger effects of a bigger Somernova remain a concern, he said Wednesday.

… and a new MBTA station

While no one is saying a T station would be an immediate benefit of an expanded Somernova, Rafi Properties has had preliminary conversations with the MBTA about it, said Kristin Phelan, the company’s vice president of real estate development.

During a Wednesday call, Phelan noted that the T station is an idea that was proposed by community members, reflecting the company’s responsiveness to residents in general and the neighborhood council.

“We meet with the neighborhood council frequently. We are in constant conversations with them,” Phelan said. Before the Monday meeting about mobility, one was held the last week in May.

Fabrication districts and the arts

Encroachment on the city’s “fab” districts, which are intendeds to create spaces for artists and small creative enterprises, may be harder to resolve than transit. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council and City of Somerville jointly released an Arts Space Risk Assessment in 2022 saying “a mismatch exists” between the creative space at risk to development and square footage for it that’s being created by city policies.

The difficulty of finding practice space for music in Somerville Union was noted in the Square Neighborhood Council response by resident and musician Ajda Snyder, and Hansen said the new Somernova proposal – which shrank its creative space as the entire project got smaller – may not be the answer. “We want more artist space. The city has to come up with a better definition of artist, and find a way to create more artist space in the city,” Hansen said.

Another concern of the USNC is over the outdoor aspects of the project. “They’re making sidewalks smaller, and there’s less green space,” Rudolf said. A benefits agreement report seeks 25 percent of ground level square footage as open space. The USNC is concerned that the proposed Somernova zoning counts walkways and indoor civic-use rooms as open space. 

The original $3.3 billion, 10-year redevelopment for the complex was pitched Sept. 25 but withdrawn in February after feedback from the Somerville community and the neighborhood council. The scaled-back plan filed May 6 with the city of Somerville shrank the project from 1.9 million while adding a new use: 100 homes. It includes 65,670 square feet of arts space including music and performance venues of various sizes with speakeasies, cafes and music- and arts-focused retail.

Working through a process

The neighborhood group is authorized to negotiate legally binding community benefits agreements with Union Square developers, and Rafi has agreed to negotiate one. Hansen, however, is concerned about the zoning amendment, as it is also legally binding if approved by the city.

“We’re looking for a way for the community to get as much input as possible. We do appreciate the amount of work Rafi has done to reach out to the community, but the process is flawed,” Hansen said.

A statement from Rafi Properties and the Somernova development team was sent Thursday in response to council concerns.

“Community feedback is essential to great projects. The Somernova team is actively meeting with the Union Square Neighborhood Council and continues to incorporate feedback-driven changes into Somernova’s campus expansion plan. We look forward to meeting and working with USNC Community Benefits Agreement committee in the coming weeks to further these discussions,” the statement said.