Testimony Regarding Assembly Square Phase 1-AA Final Submission

The following testimony was submitted by e-mail to the Somerville Planning Board on August 30, 2007, as preparation for the final Public Hearing on permitting the proposed IKEA project in Assembly Square. The hearing was scheduled at 6 P.M. September 4, 2007, in the Aldermen's Chambers at City Hall, 93 Highland Avenue, Somerville. Those concerned about Somerville's future should attend this hearing.

August 30, 2007

David Dahlbacka

Somerville Planning Board
93 Highland Avenue
Somerville MA 02143
c/o Madeleine Masters

RE: Testimony Regarding Assembly Square Phase 1-AA Final Submission

Dear Planning Board:

This letter is to provide my testimony regarding the Assembly Square Phase 1-AA Final Submission. However, I would like first to point out that scheduling the public hearing on September 4, 2007, shortly after Labor Day, makes participating in the public process difficult for many people. More convenient scheduling would cost the city nothing and would encourage an attitude of joint problem-solving among all parties.

As you know, to provide for our joint financial future, Somerville needs the full transit-oriented office and R&D build-out at Assembly Square as soon as possible. To that end, I indicate my support of PUD Phase 1-AA, with the following issues that I believe you should address as conditions on this set of permits.

CAR TRAFFIC ESTIMATES. The previous version of this project included 277,000 square feet of IKEA, with a claimed traffic count of 6,840 trips on weekdays, 11,800 Saturdays. The current version of this project includes 340,000 square feet of IKEA, with a claimed traffic count of 6,180 trips weekdays, 10,510 Saturdays. The new IKEA design is 23% larger than the old; how can a 23% larger store bring in 10% less traffic? IKEA’s estimates for the Stoughton store were significantly lower than the actuality. More than two years after the Stoughton IKEA opened, cars are still frequently bumper-to-bumper on the 2-mile two-lane road from Rt-24 to the Stoughton IKEA. Note that the Somerville IKEA is only 1000 feet away from the I-93 Broadway off ramp, so fewer cars can be accommodated before the traffic backs up onto I-93 itself.

IKEA’s position appears to be that the Stoughton IKEA already serves most of the customers that could want to go to an IKEA in this area, so adding the Somerville IKEA would split the burden. If IKEA expected to gain no new customers by building a store in Somerville, why would IKEA bother to build one? The area around the Somerville IKEA is much more densely populated than that around the Stoughton IKEA. We can expect that local residents who would not drive all the way to Stoughton would nonetheless drive to the Somerville IKEA.

IKEA’s traffic study compared the Somerville IKEA with freestanding IKEAs elsewhere that had a significant transit component. This methodology has two problems. First, the Somerville IKEA is not located alone in a suburban area with ample space and simple superhighway access; it is embedded in an urban area that already has heavy traffic and a complex street topology. Second, by deriving their estimates from IKEAs with a transit component, they implicitly claim benefits from the proposed Orange Line T-Stop years before it could be built. If the IKEA swallowed all of the traffic capacity of I-93 and Rt-28, it would be difficult for office space to be developed in the Assembly Square riverfront site, in which case the Orange Line T-Stop would probably never be built at all.

Note that the Massachusetts state authorities are preoccupied with problems with the Big Dig and with bridge maintenance; they have already indicated they will not pay for road improvements to address the Stoughton IKEA's traffic problems, and they are not likely to do so in Somerville either. Recently there have even been indications that the state authorities are lowering the priority of the Orange Line T-Stop in Assembly Square and the Green Line Extension to Medford and Somerville. To guard against over-optimism, IKEA’s estimates should be derived from a sample that includes non-transit-oriented IKEAs.

HEALTH EFFECTS. The permit application made no mention of health effects of traffic such as that produced by IKEA. The fine particulates produced by IKEA traffic will affect the health not only of direct abutters to the Assembly Square PUD site, but abutters to the I-93, Rt-28, Broadway, and Mystic Avenue approaches to the area as well. People living within 300 feet of a highly traveled roadway are much more likely than people living in clean areas to experience childhood asthma, never develop full lung capacity, develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, give birth to children with birth defects, and die from heart or lung disease. IKEA’s application should discuss these health effects and include proposed mitigation for them.

ASSEMBLY SQUARE DRIVE MEDIAN. The proposed median strip in the middle of Assembly Square Drive on the approach to IKEA is visually appealing, but a bad idea as regards traffic. Assembly Square Drive will clearly be the most heavily traveled roadway in Assembly Square, but the proposed plan narrows it from 4 lanes to 2 lanes at the IKEA approach. What will surely happen is that traffic will jam at the 2-lane choke point, after which the bike lane and the shoulder will be taken over by cars. The roadway should be left at 4 lanes, with the bike lane and plantings placed alongside it. If possible, the bike lane should be completely separated from the car lanes, for instance by a curb. For an example of how this might be done, see the bike lanes alongside Fresh Pond Parkway near the Fresh Pond filtration plant.

T-STOP PLATFORM. The assumed T-Stop platform has too few platform head houses and is poorly sited on IKEA’s plans. These assumptions should be corrected now, because IKEA's and Federal Realty's assumptions about the T-Stop will influence their design decisions, which will in turn influence the design decisions of the MBTA when the MBTA starts working on the T-Stop. The current plan shows a walkway from the single head house to an office building around the corner from IKEA. In order to get to IKEA, the customer would have to climb at least 25 feet down from the head house, walk about a block around a corner, and climb at least 25 feet back up into IKEA. The plans should propose two elevated head houses integrated with the street layout, one at the end of "E" Street (Foley Street) and the other at the end of IKEA Way. IKEA’s design should include a walkway from the IKEA Way head house past the bioretention garden to the main floor of the IKEA building. This feature would make it much more convenient for customers to get to IKEA from the T-Stop and, in combination with free or inexpensive delivery of heavy items, would be very helpful in mitigating the traffic burden.

JOBS. IKEA predicts it will provide about 510 jobs at the Assembly Square store. (Building a ten-story office building on only half of the IKEA property would bring in about 10,000 jobs.) IKEA does not say which of the 510 jobs are full-time and which are part-time, and proposes no mechanism for ensuring that Somerville residents get preference for these jobs. Such a mechanism should be included as a condition of permitting this project.

SHARED BUS STOP. The bus stop area at the corner of Assembly Square Drive and IKEA Way is shared with off-hours food loading and garbage pickup for the IKEA restaurant. This could constitute a health hazard. If possible, IKEA should move food loading and garbage pickup to the back of the building, where the loading docks are. If the current location is retained, food loading and garbage pickup should be scheduled to avoid the hours of operation of the MBTA bus and subway, which may start as early as 5 A.M. and end as late as 1 A.M. Somerville health inspectors should be instructed to monitor the situation closely and make sure that the bus stop remains clean, odor-free, and otherwise attractive, useable, and safe.

OPEN SPACE. The current IKEA plans include only 12.5% open space, not the 25% required by the PUD. The plans label as "Useable Open Space" incidental strips around its parking lots, a triangular area between the truck loading ramp and the building, and a strip between the truck loading ramp and the MBTA Orange Line. None of this is actually useable open space. Who is going to plan a picnic next to a loading ramp populated by belching, bellowing diesels? IKEA states that its deficiencies in open space will be made up for in the rest of the site; however, the rest of the site will not be fully built-out for 15 or 20 years. IKEA should provide more concentrated useable open space in locations accessible to all, and provide amenities to make that space attractive. For example, the area of the current bus stop could be made larger and integrated with the IKEA restaurant and with the IKEA banner park across IKEA Way. Doing this would most likely require that the food loading and garbage pickup happen elsewhere. As noted above, this would be a good thing for sanitary reasons.

PEDESTRIAN CONNECTIONS. The pedestrian connections with the rest of Somerville are underspecified. For instance, there is an arrow on the site map pointing to the Rt-28 undercarriage, but little else. When will these connections actually be built? Detailed drawings comparable to the Ten Hills storm sewer mitigation drawings should be provided for the undercarriage and for the other key pedestrian connections, especially at Rt-28 and Assembly Square Drive, Rt-28 and Middlesex Avenue, I-93 at Rt-28, and I-93 at Kensington Avenue.

SIGNAGE. The proposed signage at the IKEA development is overkill. This bright blue and yellow industrial-warehouse building is 66 feet tall (4 stories), with an IKEA-labeled water tank off one end and a circle of IKEA banners off the other. There are three IKEA signs on the west face (toward I-93), and two on the north face (toward Rt-28). One of the west-face signs is 86 feet long, 6 feet longer than my house lot. One IKEA sign per face is more than adequate to tell the world that IKEA is there.

The Somerville Zoning Board has tools in place that allow it to make this IKEA development the best in the world and make the Assembly Square PUD the best development in metropolitan Boston. Let's work together to make that happen.


David Dahlbacka