Transparency and Accountability: a Community-Driven Zoning process for Ward 2

Just this week I got a question from a Ward 2 resident who was fed up with the lack of transparency and accountability from the Board of Aldermen. She had contacted the Board with questions about an upcoming change to the zoning of her neighborhood along with a petition signed by 22 of her neighbors. Unfortunately, the only Aldermen who replied to her or acknowledged her message in any way were Bill White (at-large, Board President) and Matt McLaughlin (Ward 1).

So she reached out to me with the same letter and question:

“I and many of my neighbors have been losing faith in the City.  It clearly has not been looking out for the best interests of those of us who do live here, in favor of developers who do not.  The Beacon Street Reconstruction Project, the cutting of our trees, and developers being granted waiver after waiver and deal after deal have profoundly disappointed us.  In each case there is some version of “process”, usually public meetings.  However, the meetings are often held after major decisions or deals have already been made, and no action is taken as a result of the public comment. […] Before we vote, please tell us: What will you PROMISE with regard to zoning along Beacon Street, from Durham to the Cambridge Line at Inman Square?”

This post is my long answer that boils down to a very short version:

“I will ask you – as a neighborhood – what you want, and I will use that to guide my recommendation to the Land Use Committee and my vote on the Board.”

Of course, that’s easy to say… but how can we make that work in practice? That’s the long answer, below. It is in three parts. First is how I think our process needs to be better – more transparent and more accountable – and then sharing some of my personal thoughts about what I’d like to see in zoning on Beacon Street.

WHAT I WILL DO

Here’s what I’ll promise about the upcoming zoning. This is my concrete plan of how to approach understanding what is proposed, amending what needs to change, and voting on final approval that truly embraces residents input at every step of the way. I am committed to governing in an inclusive and transparent way that puts our neighborhoods and families first.

In order to get your voices heard, I propose implementing a policy similar to that of Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in Chicago’s 35th Ward: for each zoning region that would incorporate major changes to allowed heights/setbacks/uses in an area, I would host a community meeting (or a series of meetings, if needed) to discuss and gather input on the specific zoning proposed and its impact on the community. All residents within 500 feet of the zoning area would receive a printed invitation to these meetings, and I would use these meetings to guide my input and votes on zoning.

I recommend checking out Alderman Rosa’s website about the inspiring process he undertakes in his ward to ensure zoning is determined by the community, and not by developers. I’d like to emulate that here.
http://www.aldermancarlosrosa.org/cdzd

In the case of an effective citywide overhaul, this will likely mean a separate meeting for each zoning area. However, I think this is the only way to ensure that residents are informed and included in the decision making process. I want to be clear that this is not the city’s “public process” – this will be my process to make sure I am representing the interests of Ward 2’s residents.

As inputs to those meetings, I’d want easily accessible documents to help people understand what is being discussed:

1) source material (zoning code as written)
2) comparison to current uses (how many buildings and uses in the area would be “compliant” or “non-compliant” under the proposed zoning change)
3) translation of allowed building options and layout (examples of what could be newly built under the changes)
4) some interpretation of the city’s goals/intent in the proposed change
5) preliminary analysis of the effectiveness of the proposed change

I’d also like to have an online forum for people to see all of this material ahead of time so that we are able to get informed and come with a common starting point of information. 

At the local meeting itself, I’d like to hear what residents think about the proposed changes on the following points:

a) do you feel the goals/intent are desirable?
b) do you feel the goals/intent are adequately met with the code as proposed?
c) what are the possible costs and benefits to the neighborhood of the proposed change?
d) what are better ways of attaining desirable goals/benefits without unacceptable negative impacts to the neighborhood?

As outputs from these meetings, I’d like to take with me a set of guidelines determined by the attendees that I can use to draft amendments to the proposed zoning that take into account all of the discussion at that meeting – ideally with the explicit approval granted by a vote at that meeting for or against certain changes. If this takes more than one meeting to settle on, then I say let’s take the time to discuss it and get it right.

I’d then put those amendments forth during the deliberation process at the Board of Aldermen with the neighborhood’s support and urge their adoption by the Board. With the full support of the neighborhood, how could they not be accepted?

If the majority of neighbors strongly support a set of necessary changes, I’ll be promoting those – and I won’t support approval of the zoning unless those changes are incorporated or until the community is convinced that a compromise position is acceptable. 

Now, I know this won’t be easy. For example, few people want to have a new fire station put next to their house – but the community will need a fire station someplace central. Are we willing to compromise on noise in the interest of public safety? Likewise, most people want to improve affordability in Somerville. Are we willing to compromise on building height if a project provides a large amount of affordable housing for middle class residents and artists?

We owe it to the neighborhood to hold these meetings, understand the underlying interests, and ask ourselves these questions. We can take neighborhood concerns into account and work to build consensus around a solution that serves the neighborhood and the individual neighbors.

WHY I WILL DO IT

I believe the public process and scrutiny to this point regarding zoning overhaul has not been sufficient. I have shared every one of these frustrations around developer waivers, Beacon Street reconstruction, and especially in the zoning process around Union Square, where I live and work.

I think that we can do better to incorporate the input of homeowners and tenants alike, and neighbors of every inclination, who may have differing priorities for what they want to see in the neighborhood. Ultimately, this city can be (and should be) what we make of it. I think strong neighborhood organizations can and should make a huge difference in what gets approved and built.

I believe that this can be a directly democratic process, and I have a lot of faith in the intelligence, dedication, and goodwill of my neighbors to dive into the details of these discussions. There are a lot of things to consider, and I have confidence in your ability do that if you have all the information transparently available to you. I will advocate based on my own preferences, but ultimately the decision on how I vote at the Board is going to come from the neighbors.

WHAT I THINK ABOUT BEACON ST RIGHT NOW

If you want to hear my personal opinions about zoning on Beacon St from Washington to Inman, I’m glad to break some of those down as well. I think that we need to get it right before passing it, and that what’s proposed now has some serious problems that have not been addressed. 

I’d like to see zoning that allows homeowners more flexibility to modify their homes, and I’d like to see zoning in place that prevents buildings that discourage interactions with the neighborhood. (As much as I love the people who live in 94 Beacon, I don’t think it’s the best model for what buildings can be on Beacon Street.) I’d also like to see zoning that encourages the creation of small businesses that serve the neighborhood like Thai Hut, the Biscuit, Thirsty Scholar, and more. I’d like to find ways that we can enable responsible development that creates affordable housing for low and middle income residents. I’d like to think we can do all of that without destroying the character of the neighborhood.

I’m very interested in walking down the street with a group of neighbors and a tape measure! I’d love to hear what neighbors think is desirable and objectionable on the street, and make a list of what the important factors are in preserving the character of the neighborhood including really understanding what’s actually there already.

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It’s not going to be short or easy, but I actually think it sounds pretty exciting to work with all of my neighbors to find great solutions and make sure that the neighborhood is what we want to make of it… which is a big part of why I’m running for Alderman.

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