It’s been another busy few weeks in Somerville! I’ve hosted many neighborhood meetings about local development, the citywide zoning overhaul, and city infrastructure construction. It’s great to see so many of you getting engaged at the neighborhood level!
In addition, it’s been a busy Committee schedule at the Board of Aldermen, with big pieces of legislation getting a lot of attention and major reforms happening in the way we process public safety promotions and appointments. In addition, the Board took a very close look at an unprecedented request by the Mayor to create $2 Million in new city employee positions outside of budget season.
There’s also been a lot of deliberation around a proposed Transfer Tax, and there are several other large items under consideration by the Board.
Recaps of all that, plus a quick review of upcoming meetings, are in this edition of the Ward 2 Newsletter!
Police and Firefighter Hiring and Promotion Process Improved
New Positions Proposed at City Hall, midyear funding requested
Real Estate Transfer Fee discussed
Right-To-Purchase gets a first round of consideration
LOCAL MEETING ROUNDUP
Zoning Meeting Recaps
Somerville Ave Streetscape
Beacon St Construction
Union Square “D-2” Meeting, April 19
Somerville Spring Clean-Up, April 21
Traffic and Transportation in Union Square, April 24
Office Hours Update
ACCOUNTABILITY – Police and Firefighter Hiring and Promotion Process Improved
Our public safety employees – firefighters and police officers – are some of the most critical positions the city hires. It may not be well understood outside of city government, but every police and fire hire is an appointment by the Mayor. The details of that process are pretty arcane, and while Civil Service is intended to ensure that applicants are treated fairly and ranked by qualification, the fact is that Somerville doesn’t have the greatest history when it comes to complaints with the Civil Service Commission. This link shows three cases the city has been involved in just in the past year when it comes to hiring practices around the police and fire departments.
As Chairman of the Confirmation of Appointments and Personnel Matters Committee, I have undertaken with my colleagues to reform the process by which these critical hires are approved to ensure that these positions receive appropriate consideration and that the hiring process has sufficient review. Since coming into office, this committee has reviewed five police promotions, two new firefighter hires, and nine new police hires. In the course of those, we have uncovered concerning issues regarding the ways these appointments are made, and are pushing to put in place further reforms to our city’s process.
When it comes to Firefighters, our use of a Reserve List (that has a several year backlog) is causing a situation in which new highly-qualified applicants who take the civil service test cannot be hired, and both the Massachusetts Superior Court and the Civil Service Commission found that our process included favoritism towards relatives of city employees and unjustly bypassed candidates for employment. Making matters worse, the Reserve List process we currently use means that no justice is available for the bypassed candidates, and they won’t be hired as firefighters. We are working to find a solution that brings more equity to this process and do better moving forward.
In terms of police promotions, our review resulted in the first known case of a promotion being denied by the Board. This was a serious step undertaken with only the gravest concerns. I am proud of the process we created and the consideration that my colleagues on the Board gave to this important matter. The people of Somerville deserve to know that the hiring process is equitable and thorough.
I want to extend my congratulations especially to Ward 2 resident Lysander Amado, who was recently hired as a Somerville firefighter! Lysander grew up here in Somerville and played football for Somerville High School, and his family are long-time residents of Washington Street. He has been serving in the US Army and is up for promotion to Sergeant. In addition, he speaks four languages (!) and I have confidence he’ll be a great addition to our Fire Department. Welcome, Mr Amado!
TRANSPARENCY – New Positions Proposed at City Hall, midyear funding requested
In March, the administration put forward 20 new non-union positions to be created in the city government covering a great many positions. Many of my colleagues joined me in expressing concern over this unprecedented expansion of city payroll outside of the usual budgeting cycle. With a Board consisting of 5 new members who have never participated in the city budgeting process before, I felt it was important not to over-commit creation of new salaried permanent positions without a thorough explanation of how it would impact next year’s budget and the city’s complicated financial outlook.
With that said, the case for several of these positions was compelling – particularly as it relates to the upcoming construction season which is landing hard on Ward 2 with major projects on Beacon St and Somerville Ave, as well as other utility work throughout the ward. In the end, the Board voted to approve only six positions, mostly related directly to this season’s major construction work:
- Engineering Division : Construction Liaison and Compliance Manager (vote: 11-0)
- Engineering Division : Construction Project Manager (vote: 10-1)
- Transportation & Infrastructure Division : Streetscape and Public Space Planner (vote: 9-2)
- Water & Sewer Department : Director of Finance & Administration (vote: 7-3)
- Engineering Department : Project Manager (vote: 6-5)
- Communications Department : Construction Information Officer (vote: 6-5)
As you can see, these votes were contentious – and it’s a sign that this Board is taking the job seriously. Fortunately, even with such apparent disagreement on the Board the mood is quite congenial, and I’ve had a blast getting to work with my new colleagues.
AFFORDABILITY – Real Estate Transfer Fee discussed
The Board had a Public Hearing that was very well attended, and I’m happy to say that the feedback was heard and that we are making important progress. At our last meeting, the Board moved unanimously to pursue a strategy introduced by Alderman Stephanie Hirsch in which all owner-occupants (both buyers and sellers) are fully exempt from paying the 1% fee – the fee would only paid by developers, investors, and absentee landlords.
We’ve still got a lot of work to do with six more meetings scheduled over the next month to work on the details. In addition, another Public Hearing will be scheduled in May so that residents can provide input on a more detailed proposal that is closer to its final form.
In terms of “what will this money be used for”, that’s a big part of my concern. The proposal I’ve been hammering on since the first days of my campaign has been a Community Land Trust that helps Somerville residents become Somerville homeowners – and it’s a perfect way to deploy these funds to help Villens stay here and raise families in the city we all love. I’ll keep working with my colleagues and the administration to ensure that this money goes to fight displacement and help current residents stay in this city.
AFFORDABILITY – Right-To-Purchase gets a first round of consideration
In addition to all of this work in the Legislative Matters Committee on the Transfer Fee (which you could also call the “Developer Tax”), we also spent a fair amount of time discussing the Tenant Right-of-First-Refusal (or Tenant Right-To-Purchase) bill. This would create an opportunity for tenants to purchase the homes in which they currently live, if their absentee landlord decides to sell the building to a developer. While the mayor’s office proposed an initial version that had a lot to object to, a small group of local residents and my colleague in Ward 3, Ben Ewen-Campen, have been working with me to write a draft that more closely matches our intent.
You can see the current draft at this link: http://jtforward2.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/DRAFT-3.29.18-Tenant-Opportunity-to-Purchase_BW.pdf
Just like the Developer Tax/Transfer Fee, this right would not trigger for owner-occupied homes – only for absentee landlords. In addition, the right of a homeowner to keep the property in their family is preserved. At the same time, this bill provides an immensely important opportunity for existing tenants to buy their property outright (perhaps even with assistance from the Transfer Fee revenue via the Community Land Trust) or to work with another non-profit affordable housing developer to buy the home and remain in Somerville, rather than being displaced for more “luxury condos”.
We’ve still got a lot of work to do on this, and I’ll be continuing to work on the proposal over the next few months. I’ve met with a lot of constituents about the idea already, including the Small Property Owners Association, and want to make sure I hear everyone’s thoughts. We’ll bring it back to the Board for consideration later this year, and I assure you that there will be plenty of meetings set aside for public comment and review before acting upon it. In the meantime, if you’ve got thoughts on the current proposal linked here, I’d be happy to hear them.
ZONING MEETING RECAPS
I hosted a series of neighborhood meetings through February and March to get residents together and have small group conversations about neighborhood issues and citywide issues with zoning. Dan Bartman from the Planning Department was able to attend most of them to hear your thoughts first-hand, and he thought they were really valuable! While there were a ton of different viewpoints in the room, and frequently serious disagreements, the end result were some fabulous conversations and some real consensus about a few points.
First, most of us are very leery of major out-of-town developers. The risk to our neighbors and our neighborhoods of displacement is real, and we’re all feeling it. Trust in city government to act in our interest to protect us is low. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can articulate very clearly what we love about our neighborhoods, in ways that I think will shape the zoning positively. We want to preserve people more than buildings – and so affordability is a key priority for people. Our small businesses and local services are treasured parts of the community – and everyone wants to make sure Market Basket stays here forever, if possible. Finding ways to improve the zoning and allow small businesses to start up and operate along our main streets (Prospect, Beacon, Washington, Somerville) in the existing building types is important to many of us.
Finding ways to enable reasonable growth without turning our neighborhood into a condo-flipper feeding frenzy is high on everyone’s mind. This theme was also evident in the public hearing, and I’m happy to say that I’ve had more meetings with the Planning Department to try to work these ideas into the next draft of Zoning. At the moment, it appears that we’ll continue to work on this as a Board for several more months as time allows, but that ultimately the Zoning proposal will expire at the 90-day window and be resubmitted as a new draft with a great many changes incorporated from our neighborhood meetings to be taken up again in the Fall.
I for one am glad that we’re taking the time to get it right – and hope that we’ll be able as a city to put some strong anti-displacement measures in place to ensure that the growth in Somerville is something that all of us are still here to enjoy in five, fifteen, or fifty years.
BEACON ST CONSTRUCTION
Beacon Street work is once again underway. We had a productive meeting of the committee on Public Utilities and Public Works at the Argenziano on April 2, though we still don’t have all the answers I’d like about how construction has been handled there and the removal of Beacon Street’s trees. With the construction beginning again, unfortunately we’re already seeing that Newport isn’t necessarily handling business in the way we’d hope. I’ll continue to push for tighter schedules and more accountability in this process, and am grateful for the help of some seriously engaged neighborhood activism around this!
Speaking of which, there is a tree hearing concerning the six remaining trees on Beacon Street on MONDAY, APRIL 23rd. It will be held at the Public Safety Building at 220 Washington Street, starting at 6pm. Based on what I heard at the PUPW Committee meeting, this is your opportunity as a community to demand a change in the plans that preserves any of those trees – rather than removing them and replanting them. It would be a very expensive change process to undertake, and would require the city’s transportation department to request those changes, but that’s the reason why we have these hearings – to get you the information, and hear what you want done.
In the meantime, I’ve also put in several board orders to address ongoing safety and visibility problems along Beacon Street (including at Durham, Park, and Eustis), and will continue to follow up on every concern you bring to me!
SOMERVILLE AVE STREETSCAPE WORK
Construction is happening right now in Union Square as well, starting at Webster and Somerville and moving east towards McGrath. We had a decent meeting back on March 18th and a tree hearing on March 25th. There will be another tree removal hearing on May 2nd. Rather than try to recap all of this information here, I’m going to post this link where the city has done a bang-up job of getting information posted online from these meetings, and keeping us informed of future meetings: https://www.somervillema.gov/unionsquareinfrastructure
I absolutely commend the folks up at city hall for doing a great job on communicating information about this important project both to residents and to business owners in Union Square, in cooperation with Union Square Main Streets!
UNION SQUARE “D-2” MEETING, APRIL 19
US2’s First Design & Site-Plan Review Meeting for the “D-2 Parcel” (aka the lot at the corner of Prospect and Somerville Ave that formerly had Anestis Metals and A-1 Radiator) is happening tomorrow! Thursday, April 19th, 6-8pm, Union Square Police Station (220 Washington St.)
Late last year, the Union Square Developer, US2, obtained a “Coordinated Development Special Permit” from Somerville’s Planning Board, clearing the way for them to begin design work on specific parcels within Union Square – the first of which is the so-called “D-2 block”. This Thursday’s meeting (hosted by US2) will be their first presentation of preliminary design work for the buildings and public space planned for D-2. You can read US2’s press release for the meeting at this link (https://mailchi.mp/somervillema/demolition-review-law-meeting-3277473); they “will show preliminary schematic plans, and [seek] community input as a first step in the Design and Site Plan Review process for the D2 buildings and civic space.”
As you all know, these buildings are part of a large-scale redevelopment of Union Square. This series of community meetings on the D-2 block are therefore likely to be very important, and I hope many of you are able to come.
I know both myself and the Ward 3 Alderman will be in attendance to see the plans and provide input – and hear yours. The City is not hosting these meetings, but I hope US2 has included time for members of the public to be heard and to hear each other at the meeting.
SOMERVILLE SPRING CLEAN-UP, APRIL 21
The Somerville Spring Clean-Up is happening this Saturday, April 21st, 10am. Ward 2 meet-ups are happening at the ArtFarm location at 10 Poplar St, at the South St Farm, and at the Quincy Street Open Space., 14 Quincy St.
I hope you can join me for this year’s annual clean-up! It’s gonna be great – here’s the City’s press release, which contains all the information you’ll need:
“The annual Spring Clean Up is a city-wide clean up and gardening day spread across 12 different sites throughout Somerville. Come out to get our public spaces ready to be used for the spring and summer ahead! Please RSVP at https://goo.gl/forms/EQVcnxzkJhVCRLpQ2
Schedule for the day:
9am-10am: Kickoff & breakfast provided by Comcast at the Boathouse at the Blessing of the Bay park.
10am-12pm: Cleaning at sites around Somerville
12pm-2pm: Community BBQ lunch provided by Mayor Joe Curtatone and the City of Somerville at the Boathouse. Includes interactive activities for kids and adults! Enjoy music by Rose and the Wild Edibles!
Come for the entire time, or go straight to any of the cleanup sites to volunteer! If joining for breakfast and/or lunch, volunteers are responsible for their own transportation from the Boathouse to their cleanup site and back.”
TRAFFIC AND TRANSPORTATION IN UNION SQUARE, APRIL 24
We’ve had a lot of work done lately, and a lot more coming up. While we had good meetings about trees and the Somerville Ave streetscape work, there’s a lot of other changes that have happened in the last year (and are coming soon) that deserve their own time as topics for public review. Here’s the meeting that Brad Rawson with Traffic and Infrastructure is hosting at the request of myself and Alderman Hirsch.
If you’re interested in transportation around the Union Square and Inman Square neighborhoods join us at a forum on Tuesday, April 24, to talk about projects and issues. The forum will be broken down into five subject-specific segments so you can drop in for a topic you’re most interested in or stick around for them all. The schedule will be:
6 to 6:30 p.m. – Informal drop in
6:30 to 7 p.m. – Lincoln Park neighborhood traffic and safety
7 to 7:30 p.m. – MBTA bus service planning and Route 91 proposal
7:30 to 8 p.m. – Union Square traffic signals
8 to 8:30 p.m. – Prospect Hill neighborhood traffic and safety
The forum will be held in the Academy Room at the police station, 220 Washington St. For more information, please email email@example.com.
OFFICE HOURS UPDATE
Now that the weather isn’t absolutely miserable, I’ve been out in the neighborhood again knocking on doors and talking to neighbors. Quite frankly, it’s the best way I can reach out to hear from you – and I don’t want the only time you see me to be in a public hearing or during a campaign.
With that said, I’m still hosting Office Hours every Friday morning from 8-10am at my home office: 269 Washington St. There’s been a lot of great conversations there about city policy and some amazing ideas from ward 2 residents. If you’ve got anything on your mind, please do stop by any Friday morning and say hello! (You never know who else from the neighborhood you may see here.)
Thanks for making it through this long newsletter – even at such great length, I know there’s plenty that I haven’t covered. If you’ve got questions about anything going on in the ward or at City Hall please just come by on a Friday morning, shoot me an email, or give me a call – I’ll be happy to come chat.