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Monday, January 14, 2013

Somerville planners Outline Walkable City Vision

Here is Auditi's recap of the January 8th Somerville By Design meeting held at the Armory~Courtney O'Keefe

By Auditi Guha of the Somerville Journal
Wicked Local Somerville

Imagine European-style plazas with central towers or fountains, five-point squares with flatiron buildings, increased green space and trees, and cafes or roof gardens atop industrial buildings – that’s what the Somerville of the future could look like, according to city planners.

Residents packing the main hall in the Armory left enthused and full of ideas Tuesday night after a two-hour long Somerville By Design meeting that envisions redesigning those neighborhoods slated for new T stops – namely, Gilman Square, Lowell Street and Ball Square stations. As the MBTA works on station location and design, city planners are working on pre-planning the future of those neighborhoods in tune with SomerVision.

“It makes me want to live in Somerville forever,” said Magoun Square resident Maura Vogel. “I want to see what happens here. These plans have a lot of potential.”

The design strategy and process was outlined by DC resident and author of “Walkable City,” Jeff Speck, Principal at Speck & Associates and a consultant to the city helping to design new mixed-use, transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods. Displaying photos from a chic walkway in Amsterdam to a blighted streetscape in Las Vegas, Speck said Somerville is already well on its way to becoming America’s most walkable city, as Mayor Joe Curtatone envisions.

“You are already ahead,” he said. “Many cities do not have the advantages you already have. You were born in third base.”

He talked about design elements that make streets safer, more interesting, useful and comfortable so that people choose to walk more. He pointed out blighted spots that discourage people from doing so today – from the bridge near Ball Square and the stretch of Medford Street behind the high school gym, to the industrial stretch of buildings on Lowell Street and the awkward street corners and bare spots in Gilman Square.

A series of urban design plans for Gilman Square, Lowell Street/Magoun Square and Ball Square prepared over the past three months were presented and are available online. Of them, the first two squares are most developed so far and the city is planning an additional Ball Square plan meeting in the near future.

“It’s really enlightening to see what Mr. Speck is talking about,” said Ward 5 Alderman Sean O’Donovan, warning that it will be a long process but that there will be lots of meetings in the future for resident input. “It will be great to see these squares come alive.”

Union Square resident Barbara Steiner is excited about the changes proposed. She said she has walked all over the city and finds several areas challenging so talk of changing the face of Broadway is encouraging. She is slightly worried about density but believes it’s better to plan ahead than to have developers build anything anywhere.

Magoun Square resident Tom Lamar, who attended previous design meetings that culled resident input and read one of Speck’s books, said he feels the city is going in the right direction. He thought the idea of putting cafes or condos on top of the one-story industrial buildings on Lowell Street a trifle “whimsical” but is all in favor of moving the Dunkin Donuts lot behind the building instead of in front of it, as the city’s Planning Director George Proakis outlined.

In order to allow for the design and planning envisioned, the city will have to overhaul its complex zoning ordinance, a task last undertaken 22 years ago, Proakis said. To rectify current conditions and to implement the goals of SomerVision the city must develop a new version of the zoning ordinance. A new “Somerville by Design” code would work with residents, businesses and elected officials to create a zoning ordinance for the 21st century, one that helps conserve great residential neighborhoods and encourage investment in areas suited for new growth.

“I think it’s necessary and I think it’s important. We have to do it,” said Ellin Reisner, Somerville resident and president of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, about changing zoning. “We are not going to be able to preserve the community we want to, nor get the changes we want without it.”

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