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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

Medford and Somerville collaborate on new Area Plan for Broadway Corridor

Medford and Somerville are teaming up to tackle a tricky zoning irregularity along the border between the two cities.

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Ball Square storefronts along Broadway are pictured.

Medford and Somerville have partnered to create a new Area Plan for the Broadway Corridor, a one-mile stretch of street along the border between Medford and Somerville. Created with the help of community feedback and support from the Horsley Witten Group, the plan will address zoning challenges that have made it a challenge to develop the corridor.

With the addition of two new Green Line stations along the Broadway Corridor — the Ball Square station on the Medford side and Magoun Square station half a mile away on the Somerville side — there is newfound demand for more mixed-use, residential/commercial development on Broadway. The cities of Medford and Somerville agree that buildings could be made taller and denser, with more affordable housing.

There’s one big problem: The town line bisects properties on the north side of the street, making them subject to conflicting zoning regulations from the two cities.

This discrepancy poses a major hurdle that the cities must overcome if they want to reinvision the Broadway Corridor as a bustling, transit-oriented district. The new Area Plan will suggest zoning and policy changes that would allow the cities to realize their shared goal.

Alicia Hunt, Medford’s director of planning, development and sustainability, described how the starkly different zoning regulations on either side of Broadway create challenges for Medford and Somerville city planners.

“One side of the road will say [property] can be this tall, and the other will say that tall,” Hunt lamented. “What is most striking to me is that Somerville has limits on how much parking you’re allowed to build, and Medford has minimums about how much parking you must build. And sometimes … you can walk that line in between them, and sometimes they’re actually in conflict with each other, which can be an issue.”

In an email to the Daily, a spokesperson for the City of Somerville summed up how the discordant zoning rules are constraining new development along the Green Line.

“New development like the opening of the MBTA Green Line Extension can exacerbate challenges for split parcels by increasing demand for development along the Broadway Corridor,” the spokesperson wrote. “In the case of new Green Line stations specifically, the proximity of the stations attracts investors and developers, but the split parcels and conflicting zoning regulations complicate planning and implementation.”

On top of the zoning irregularities, there’s also been some local pushback against the proposed redevelopment. At community meetings, Hunt has heard long-time residents express concern that their population of their neighborhood is about to balloon with the addition of new housing.

“One of the problems we’re seeing is that we would like to see more, denser housing, and it’s making the people who live there very uncomfortable,” Hunt said. “They’re nervous that their world is changing around them, that their neighborhood is changing.”

The City of Somerville emphasized that both cities are committed to engaging with the community as they design their new vision for the Broadway Corridor.

“Both the residents of Somerville and Medford have shared that their priorities for this project include creating vibrant, inclusive communities with access to affordable housing, amenities, and job opportunities,” the city spokesperson wrote.

“Public feedback has played a crucial role in shaping the project,” they continued. “Community members have informed key decisions, identified community priorities, and highlighted areas of concern.”

Medford and Somerville also have divergent affordable housing requirements that will have to be considered for any future development. In Somerville, 20% of new housing units must be affordable, and the same applies to 15% of new housing in Medford.

“Which units count towards which community’s requirements can be an issue,” Hunt said.

Hunt also acknowledged the inherent difficulties that come with constructing affordable housing for any community.

“It eats into [the developer’s] profits, and it could eat into their profit to the point where it makes a project not affordable,” Hunt said. “And if there are too many affordable units, then they don’t make enough profit to get the financing that they need for the project.”

Another source of strife has been the exploitative practices of developers seeking to take advantage of zoning discrepancies between the two cities. For example, at the 519 on Broadway Condominiums, the developer put all new housing on the Medford side of the Corridor to avoid inclusionary zoning requirements in Somerville. However, the City of Somerville described specific measures the new plan would take against these operations.

“These measures include provisions for equitable development, stricter enforcement of zoning regulations, and mechanisms to ensure compliance with affordable housing requirements,” the spokesperson wrote.

Ultimately, Medford and Somerville are both hopeful that the new Area Plan could substantively change urban design for the better across the two cities.

“The new Area Plan aims to establish a unified urban policy for Medford and Somerville, rather than simply facilitating a land swap,” the Somerville spokesperson explained. “The primary goal is to harmonize zoning regulations and promote coordinated development strategies that benefit both communities.”