Testimony on Assembly Square Mixed-Use District Amendments

(submitted 6/14/06 to Somerville Board of Aldermen)

June 14, 2006

David Dahlbacka
<phone number>

Somerville Board of Aldermen
John Long, Clerk of the Board
Somerville City Hall
93 Highland Avenue, Somerville MA 02143

RE: Roche Amendments to Assembly Square Mixed-Use Zoning

Dear Aldermen:

This testimony is with regard to the Roche Amendments to the Assembly Square Mixed-Use zoning, noticed by the City on May 31, 2006.

As was true with the Assembly Square Mixed-Use zoning passed in 2004 and later rejected by the Land Court, there are many good features to this zoning, including the requirement for a Transportation Plan and the design guidelines. Unfortunately, these good features are made irrelevant by the Priority Permitted Use concept, which is being misused to exempt low-value, high-environmental-impact uses; by the Use Cluster concept, which allows similar uses to replace low-value, high-environmental-impact uses without City review; and by the excessive discretion given to the Planning Board to waive zoning protections for the convenience of the developer. Taken together, these features of the zoning establish a bad business environment, in which politically-connected first comers are given preference and are essentially given control of the site, locking out later developers that may have plans that are better for the city in the long term.

Even more importantly, no mention is made in this zoning of the most important underlying issue at Assembly Square, the public health impact of the proposed development. This omission leaves the citizens of Somerville stripped of the public-health protections they are entitled to expect from their city government, and leaves that city government open to class-action lawsuits for contributory negligence.  

Somerville, which lies next to Interstate 93, Route 28, Route 38, and other major thoroughfares, already leads the state in excess lung cancer and heart attack deaths per square mile per year. Somerville residents smoke less than the state average, yet Massachusetts public health records from 1996-2000 show 29 excess deaths per year over five years in Somerville, even adjusted for population density and age.  More commuters already travel through or close to East Somerville than in any other Boston corridor.  I-93 and Routes 28 and 38 carry 250,000 vehicles per day. Local collectors that connect to these highways add out-of-town commuters and shoppers to swell local traffic volumes. Six passenger rail lines cut through Somerville without stopping, carrying two hundred highly-polluting diesel trains per day.

By itself, all this traffic is a drag upon the property values of the adjoining neighborhoods, but the key public health issue is fine particulate matter produced by automobiles and other mobile sources, which penetrates deep into the lungs, inflames cardiovascular systems, and causes both lung disease and heart disease. Recent EPA studies show a linear relationship between air pollution and excess deaths from lung cancer and heart attacks. People living within 100 meters of a freeway and within 50 meters of other major roadways are much more likely to die from heart and lung diseases than are people who live farther away.  

The bottom line is this: Somerville’s public health is already suffering from the effects of traffic and air pollution. Giving priority status to high-environmental-impact development types like big-box stores will make the situation worse, because such developments rely upon the automobile for their very existence. Current developer traffic estimates for Assembly Square are for up to 100,000 trips per day, with the lion’s share coming from the proposed big-box retail. The Assembly Square Mixed-Use District zoning should, at least, not make this situation worse, and should promote development types such as transit-oriented development that stand a chance of improving it. All developments should be required to fully address their traffic generation and the public health implications of that traffic so that mitigation can be applied.

To make this zoning even tolerable, the good features of this zoning must be made relevant. The following kinds of changes would be needed at the minimum. (Specific suggestions follow in Appendix A, tied to the first Roche Amendment text.)

In a perfect world, riverside land like Assembly Square would be a park or a nature preserve. The world is imperfect. If we are going to sacrifice Somerville's only waterfront to development, let us at least do it in a way that will maintain the fiscal and environmental health of Somerville and the bodily health of its citizens.


David Dahlbacka

Appendix A: References
Appendix B: Minimal Suggested Changes


Appendix A: References

Gauderman, W. James; Avol, Edward; Lurmann, Fred; Kuenzli, Nino; Gilliland, Frank; Peters, John; and McConnell, Rob. “Childhood Asthma and Exposure to Traffic and Nitrogen Dioxide.” Epidemiology. 16:6, November 2005.

This study examined the association between traffic-related pollution and childhood asthma. Lifetime history of doctor-diagnosed asthma was associated with measures of outdoor nitrogen dioxide (NO2) outside the home of each child. Increased asthma was associated with closer residential distance to a freeway and with estimates of pollution from a freeway.

Jerrett, Michael; Burnett, Richard T.; Ma, Renjun; Pope, C. Arden III; Krewski, Daniel; Newbold, K. Bruce; Thurston, George; Shi, Yuanli; Finkelstein, Norm; Calle, Eugenia E.; and Thun, Micheal J. “Spatial Analysis of Air Pollution and Mortality in Los Angeles.” Epidemiology. 16:6, November 2005.

This study compared the assessment of exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter air pollution using community average concentrations with that using small-area exposure measures. The results suggested that chronic health effects due to ischemic heart disease and lung cancer associated with small-area exposures are nearly 3 times larger than when measured between communities. Fine particulate matter was associated more strongly with ischemic heart disease than with cardiopulmonary mortality or mortality from all causes.

Knox, E.G. “Oil combustion and childhood cancers.” J. Epidemiological Community Health. 59:755-760, 2005.

This study examined the risks of child deaths from cancer near hotspots from carbon monoxide, PM10 particles, nitrogen oxides, 1,3-butadiene, benzene, dioxins, benzo(a)pyrene, and volatiles. The conclusions were that childhood cancers are strongly determined by prenatal or early postnatal exposures to oil based combustion gases, especially from engine exhausts. 1,3-butadiene (a known carcinogen) and carbon monoxide were powerful independent predictors of childhood cancer, strongly reinforced when associated with bus stations, hospitals, railways, oil installations, and industrial transport centers.

Nyberg, Fredrik; Gustavsson, Per; Jaerup, Lars; Bellander, Tom; Berglind, Niklas; Jakobsson, Robert; and Pershagen, Goeran. “Urban Air Pollution and Lung Cancer in Stockholm.” Epidemiology. 11:5, September 2000.

This 30-year retrospective study dealt with lung cancer among stable residents of Stockholm in association with NOx and SO2. Average traffic-related NO2 exposure over 30 years was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer after a latency period of 20 years.

Perera, Frederica P.; Tang, Deliang; Tu, Yi-Hsuan; Cruz, Linda Ali; Borjas, Mejico; Bernert, Tom; and Whyatt, Robin M. “Biomarkers in Maternal and Newborn Blood Indicate Heightened Fetal Susceptibility to Procarcinogenic DNA Damage”. Environmental Health Perspectives. 112:101, July 2004.

This article reported that the developing fetus is more susceptible than the mother to the carcinogenic effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) such as benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) released by transportation vehicles, power generation, and other combustion sources.  Although the estimated dose reaching the fetus is one tenth that reaching the mother, mean levels of BaP cancer biomarkers were comparable between newborns and their mothers.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. “The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act 1990-2010.” Document EPA-410-R-00-001, 1999.

This report on costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act includes information about direct effects on human health. The majority of the benefits of the Clean Air Act was due to changes in particulate matter concentration and the effect of those changes on premature mortality. In addition, this report cited evidence that air pollution can cause eutrophication in downwind waterways.


Appendix B: Minimal Suggested Changes

To understand this appendix, match it against the first version of the Assembly Square Mixed-Use District Zoning Roche Amendments, section by section.

Section 6.4 Assembly Square Mixed-Use District (ASMD)
6.4.1 Purpose

Should read:

“I. Encourage transit-oriented development in preference to automobile-intensive development;”

Reason: As noted above, car exhaust is a key contributor to lung and heart disease in Somerville. We should cut back on automobile use as much as possible.


“K. Protect the public health of the citizens of the City of Somerville.”

Reason: This is one of the key underlying reasons for zoning. Ignoring public health is culpable negligence.


Definition should read:

“Large Development: Any Development on a Parcel or Parcels of land in common ownership involving a Building or aggregate of Buildings totaling more than 50,000 square feet.”

Reason: The existing definition would allow a developer to build a square of four buildings of 49,900 square feet each separated only by 10-foot alleys without having to meet the requirements for a Large Development, even though the development comprises a total of 190,600 square feet.

Definition should read:

“Priority Permitted Uses: Permitted Uses that are eligible, pursuant to Section 6.4.5.B, for a Special Permit with Site Plan Review-A pursuant to Section 6.4.10.”

Reason: As noted later, Priority Permitted Uses are restricted to Transit Oriented uses. Therefore specifying specific use classes in this definition is inappropriate.

Deleted definition:

“[Use Cluster: Intentionally deleted.]”

Reason: The Use Cluster idea relinquishes the City’s control over Assembly Square uses, and makes it easy for developers to do the same bad thing over and over and hard for developers  to do a new good thing.

6.4.5 Use Regulations
B. Priority Permitted Uses

Deleted from list:

1) [Residential: Intentionally deleted.] “

“3) [Retail Developments: Intentionally deleted.]”

“4) [Approved PUD Mixed Use: Intentionally deleted.]”

“C. [Use Clusters: Intentionally deleted.]”

Reason: If we want transit-oriented development in Assembly Square, we should make that the priority permitted use, and nothing else. Otherwise we are just waiving zoning protections for the sole benefit of the developers.

Table of Requirements:

Remove the columns headed by “Housing”, “Retail”, and “Approved PUD Mixed Use” from under the supercolumn “Priority Permitted Uses”.

6.4.7. Development Standards and Design Guidelines for Developments in the ASMD.

Section A first paragraph should read:

“A. Development Standards. All developments shall meet the following development standards:”

Reason: Priority Permitted Uses should not be exempted from requirements as important as “Transportation Analysis”, “Parking Requirements”, “Landscapng Requirements”, and “Pedestrian Connections”.

Add subsection:

“5) Public Health Review.  All developments shall provide for review by the SPGA a review of the public health consequences of that development, including, but not limited to, the effect of this development on the incidence of diseases of environmental origin caused by automobile traffic generated by this development and the public health effects of noise, crowding, and lighting generated by this development.”

6.4.8 Development Standards and Design Guidelines for Large Developments.

First paragraph should read:

“A Large Development in the ASMD shall be regulated as a Planned Unit Development-A (PUD-A), and the procedures for such Large Development shall be those set forth in Article 16, as augmented by this Subsection. No Large Development shall be permitted in the ASMD under any other provision of this Ordinance.”

Reason: Large developments are the ones that produce the largest traffic, environmental, and public health impacts. They are the ones that must be regulated in order to protect the citizens of Somerville

Section first sentence should read:

“D. Development Standards. All Large Developments shall meet the development standards set forth above in Section 6.4.7.A for Developments, as well as consider the design guidelines set forth above in Section 6.4.7.B.”

Reason: Large developments are the ones that produce the largest traffic, environmental, and public health impacts. They are the ones that must be regulated in order to protect the citizens of Somerville.

Section first paragraph should read:

“2) Large Retail Projects. Any Large Development in which any single Retail Use is more than 50,000 square feet of gross floor area shall also be deemed a Large Retail Project, and shall be subject to the following additional standards:”

Reason: Large retail developments are the ones that produce the largest traffic, environmental, and public health impacts. They are the ones that must be regulated in order to protect the citizens of Somerville.

Section first sentence should read:

“E: Design Guidelines. In addition to the design guidelines set forth n Section 6.4.7.B for Developments, the SPGA shall also consider the following additional guidelines in their review of Large Developments.”

Reason: Large developments are the ones that produce the largest traffic, environmental, and public health impacts. They are the ones that must be regulated in order to protect the citizens of Somerville.

6.4.9 Special Permit with Site Plan review-A (SPSR-A)

Section first sentence should read:

“This Subsection shall apply to all Developments in the ASMD in excess of 10,000 square feet but not greater than 50,000 square feet, and a Phase of a PUD-A.”

Reason: Site plan review should be applied to all developments, including Priority Permitted uses, otherwise the City is abdicating its control over development.


6.4.10 Regulations Governing Priority Permitted Uses

Omission as separate item from list of desirable uses:

“* [ Promoting the development of housing … : intentionally deleted]”.

Second  bullet should read:

“* Promoting transit-oriented and transit-related high-density mixed-use development. This development may include office, R&D, ground-floor retail, and housing (including affordable housing), provided the development is designed to encourage the use of transit and to discourage the use of the automobile.”

Omissions from list of desirable uses:

“* [Promoting the prompt tenanting of an existing Mall…: intentionally deleted]”.

“* [Promoting … an Approved PUD… :intentionally deleted]”.

E. Additional Approval Criteria for the Priority Permitted Uses


“1) Additional Criteria for Residential Priority Permitted Uses… intentionally deleted.]”

“3) Additional Criteria for Retail Priority Permitted Uses….: intentionally deleted.]”

“4) Additional Criteria for Approved PUD Mixed Uses….: intentionally deleted.]“

Reason: These are not separate categories of Priority Permitted Use, and their additional requirements are subsumed under those for Transit Oriented Priority Permitted Uses.

F: Approved PUD.


1) [intentionally deleted.]

Reason: Allowing As of Right development upon issuance of a special permit is a bad idea because it does not allow the City to change anything in response to new information. This clause is strictly for the convenience of the developers.


2) [intentionally deleted.]

Reason: We should not be allowing Priority Permitted Uses to override Traffic, Parking and Loading criteria. These criteria should be uniform over the entire Assembly Square site.

Section should read:

“4) Applicability. In the event of any inconsistencies between the requirements for Approved PUDs set forth in this Section 6.4.10.F and any other provision in this Ordinance, the more restrictive requirement shall govern.”

Reason: Everywhere else in this Ordinance, the more restrictive requirements always apply. Only here is common practice turned upside down. The effect of this, again, is to undercut the protections provided by Somerville zoning.

6.4.12 Powers of the SPGA in the ASMD
B. Exceptions

Section should read:

“1) Section 6.4.8, regarding Large Developments being developed pursuant to the PUD-A provisions of Article 16; and “

Reason: Large developments are the developments that can produce the greatest problems. The fact that they may be Priority Permitted Uses should not be used to waive the protections of Somerville zoning.

6.4.13 Assembly Square Design Review Committee
C. Procedures

Section should read:

“1) Additional Meeting. If the DRC decides that a second and/or third meeting is necessary to complete their review of a PUD-A Master Plan, it shall hold such a second and/or third meeting within twenty-one (21) days of the first meeting. The DRC shall complete its review in no more than three (3) meetings.”

Reason: Completing a review of something as complex as a PUD-A Master Plan in three meetings is already very difficult. Limiting the review of Priority Permitted Uses to one meeting means that no discussion can take place, making the meeting a useless rubber-stamp.

Table of Permitted Uses


[All footnotes and references marked by *: Intentionally deleted]

Reason: The only Priority Permitted Uses are Transit-Oriented uses. Their status as transit-oriented uses is a matter of their adherence to a Transit-Oriented Master Plan, not to their specific marking in this table.

Should read:

“Approved Planned Unit Development (Approved PUD)       SPSR-A”

Reason: Just because a PUD-A has been approved doesn’t mean its provisions match the zoning. The SPGA should check for contradictions and hold the developer to the zoning.