Planning Board to continue discussing Federal Realty’s affordable housing waiver

This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal

Tensions were high at Thursday night’s Planning Board meeting, as Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) again asked the board for an affordable housing waiver.

Multiple aldermen and dozens of community members stood up in the Aldermanic Chambers April 24, urging the Planning Board to deny the request. Though the board fully intended on voting on the waiver, they decided to continue the discussion and reconvene on May 18.

Vice Chair of the Planning Board Michael Capuano was not present at the meeting, but sent a letter to fellow members asking the vote to be delayed until next month. At the previous meeting, Capuano voiced strong opposition to the waiver.

“I urge you not to grant the waiver,” he wrote in the letter. “I do not see any good reason for allowing the waiver.”

Director of Planning George Proakis said each side has benefits, and the Office of Strategic Planning and City Development outlined those and tried to remain as neutral as possible.

The waiver doesn’t make sense from an affordable housing standpoint, explained Proakis, as the city is in fact in the middle of a crisis and desperately needs to counteract rapid rates of displacement.

But it does make sense from a business standpoint, he added, since the zoning changed in the middle of a multiphase development project.

FRIT Director of Development Patrick McMahon said due to current economic conditions, the project will not move forward in the near future if the inclusionary housing ordinance stays at 20 percent.

Forty percent of new affordable units in Somerville, according to McMahon, were built in Assembly Row, and that was just under the 12.5 percent. Given current proposals and development plans, FRIT argued they are not financially prepared for 20 percent affordable housing.

Ward 1 Alderman Matthew McLaughlin said that if FRIT was unable to continue with their project, it was okay by him, since the city doesn’t need any more luxury housing.

“For FRIT to say that this [project] is not financially feasible is just astonishing to me,” said McLaughlin. “We need affordable housing.”

FRIT is serving their own interests, he continued, rather than the interests of the people — the Board of Aldermen and the community fought for a higher inclusionary housing ordinance, and all developers should have to abide by that.

McLaughlin cited strong community opposition, with an estimated 15 elected officials and constituents speaking against the waiver at the meeting. He urged the board to deny the request, asking for a continuance until next month, which the board first denied until later receiving permission from FRIT.

The alderman also said the city was not benefiting from the Partners’ deal in Assembly Row as much as they originally thought or should, but the board asked McLaughlin to focus on the affordable housing waiver at hand, not on Partners’.

Later in the meeting Proakis alluded to McLaughlin’s comment about Partners’, stating the city has benefited tremendously from the 4,000 plus jobs created by the company. He said he would not speak on the issue any further and continued talking about the waiver in front of the board.

For community members present at the meeting to suggest no one in the city is in favor of the waiver is not true, he said.

“You do have written comments in favor of this waiver from a number of people in this community,” he said. “While there has not been an organized effort to bring these people to speak at your meeting, I think statements continuing to say the community as a whole is on one side isn’t completely accurate.”

Then why, shouted a handful of constituents in the Aldermanic Chambers, weren’t those supporters present in defense of FRIT?

Members from the Chamber of Commerce did stand in support of the waiver, again asking the Planning Board to stick to the original agreement of 12.5 percent.

President Stephen Mackey spoke out against “coordinated action” between multiple aldermen, claiming they were exerting a degree of political pressures on the board.

“The thing that [struck] me at the other public hearing … is the role the Board of Aldermen play,” he explained. “I found it to be understood that aldermen, like everyone else, have a right to express opinions before the [planning] board, but I’m very concerned that there appeared to be coordinated action. That’s something we need to be aware of.”

At the end of the meeting, board members Dorothy Kelly Gay and Joseph Favalaro opposed the waiver, while Rebecca Lynn Cooper and Gerard Amaral voiced support.

Chair Kevin Prior said the board will reconvene on May 18.

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