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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Scape North America CEO pledges affordable apartments in front of skeptical crowd

Scape North America CEO Andrew Flynn answers questions regarding Scape's purchase in Davis Square on Oct. 24

Somerville Ward 6 Councilor Lance Davis and Scape North America CEO Andrew Flynn, as well as officials from their architectural contractor Utile, held a community meeting Wednesday night at the Community Baptist Church in Davis Square regarding Scape's plans for its recent purchase in Davis Square.

Scape purchased the land, which stretches from The Burren down Elm Street until it reaches Grove Street, in June.

During the meeting, Flynn confirmed that its development in Davis Square, like the coming development in Boston's Fenway, will not be exclusive to students. This marks a major departure from Scape's previous projects in other countries, which have been exclusively for-profit student housing. Flynn also promised affordable rent prices, which will include utilities.

The meeting opened with Davis, the city councilor for Davis Square, who first called attention to the Davis Square Neighborhood Plan (DSNP) and Somerville's proposed revisions to its zoning lawswhich, as they stand currently, would increase the maximum height of buildings in Somerville commercial districts from four stories and 50 feet to six stories tall.

"It's really important for you all to understand, and frankly, for the folks at Scape to understand that this has nothing to do with that. Those are separate processes that have started years ago," Davis said. "If what we end up with through this neighborhood plan that has been going on for years isn't consistent with what you tell us you're looking to do tonight, maybe you'll be able to revise your plans to fit, if not, so be it."

Flynn asserted to the crowd that the Scape development would help to address the housing shortage in the Davis Square neighborhood, focusing particularly on "workforce housing."

"The building will be a residential, open-market building," Flynn said. "The building will be fully open-market to any and all folks interested in living in the building; it'll be at affordable price points."

Flynn said all of Scape's developments in North America, not just the Boston-area developments, will be residential rather than student housing.

The DSNP confirmed that the housing stock in the Davis Square neighborhood is insufficient due to an unanticipated demand for housing in urban areas. When the MBTA Red Line's Davis Square station opened in 1984, demand rose even faster, the plan said.

The DSNP added that out of the over 2,200 new housing units added to Somerville over nine years, only 53 have been added in the Davis Square area; current zoning laws relating to number of housing units per square foot prohibit increasing housing density in the neighborhood.

Flynn said that he hoped the Scape development would draw people without families out of the housing stock around Davis Square, which suits families better. He also assured the crowd that Scape wished to maintain the "character and fabric" of Davis Square throughout the development process.

The bulk of the meeting featured officials from Utile, the architectural design firm in the process of designing the proposed Scape development, sharing architectural renderings and their plans for the new development.

Brett Bentson, an official with Utile, provided renderings of the new building, which will be six stories tall if new Somerville zoning laws allow so, with an articulated lower-level facade that will include storefronts. Bentson confirmed that only The Burren would remain open during the construction process.

Pointing to Grove Street as a major site of improvement that would come with the new building, Bentson's current plans include a courtyard, which would be flanked by apartments on Grove Street where a parking lot now sits.

Because Scape includes utilities within its rent prices, it falls within the company's best interests to reduce energy usage by as much as possible. In order to cut energy use by as much as possible, Bentson said Utile is examining sun-shading and energy-generating measures such as on-site solar panels.

He added that green roofs and underground water storage would be included in the building as measures for stormwater mitigation.

Parking will not be included in the construction plans; however, Bentson said that around 200 bike parking spaces would be available for residents of the building. Utile plans on fully furnishing the apartments ahead of time.

Sara Dunbar, who also works for Utile, said that although the building would be six stories tall, its height would be comparable to the tall commercial buildings in Davis Square.

According to previous Daily reporting, tenants on the block other than The Burren would need to vacate the property within 18 months. Flynn said that construction of the project would take 18 to 20 months.

In a question-and-answer session at the close of the presentation, Flynn guaranteed that tenants would not be allowed to have parking permits with the city, which was met with a mix of applause and frustration. Several residents expressed concern that many would not be able to travel to work, while others said that access to public transportation in Davis Square would be enough.

The meeting's attendees were quick to voice objections to Scape's plan. Chief among these was their belief that the new building would, in fact, function as a dorm given that the rooms would be fully-furnished and not provide parking. In addition, although Flynn repeatedly asserted that he hoped the development would encourage long-term residency, he stopped short of committing to having leases last longer than one year.

"Realistically, if you look in our city or any city, who rents luxury furnished apartments? Students, corporations, short-term residents," a resident said.

In addition, residents were concerned that the apartments would not be affordable. Flynn reasserted that the condos would be affordable and estimated that prices would range from $1,300 to $1,400 per month for studio apartments, although he acknowledged that the number was preliminary.

"If you're familiar with our Boston projects, they serve as a precedent and a testament to our commitment to affordability," he said. "We have committed to outperform the inclusionary development requirements [in Boston]."

The Boston Planning and Development agency requires that most new housing development include at least 13% affordable housing. According to Boston Globe reporting, the Scape development in Fenway will include around 16% affordable housing units; current Somerville law requires that at least 20% of units in new housing developments are affordable.

When an attendee asked what process exists going forward with the development, Sarah Lewis, Somerville's director of planning and zoning, said the project was in its preliminary stages.

"There is a lot more information and design needed before they're even ready to apply for anything at the planning and zoning level," she said. "So I'm imagining, as they've committed to public processes, there will probably be more meetings with the neighborhood before they even come to the city."

Residents expressed other concerns, such as increasing noise in the area, a lack of parking in the area and concern over the closure of several businesses other than The Burren.

Flynn said that, because the project is in its infancy, he and his team are willing to work more with residents to better tailor the plan to their needs.

Alexander Thompson contributed reporting to this article.

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that the community meeting subject to the article took place on Oct. 24. The meeting actually took place on Oct. 23. The article also misspelled Sara Dunbar's name as "Sara Dunmar." The article has been updated to reflect these changes. The Daily regrets these errors.