Vision for Porter Square Testimony

(Submitted to City of Somerville Director of Economic Development 5/31/09)

May 31, 2009

Mr. Rob May
Director of Economic Development
City of Somerville

Dear Mr. May:

Thank you for your part in the Vision for Porter Square meeting on May 26, 2009 at the Kennedy School. A few afterthoughts come to mind.


I applaud the interest in multistory development shown  in the Beacon Street hotel proposal. Such development has the potential for multiplying the tax revenue from the development for each floor developed. That said, there are a few issues that need to be addressed.

Loading and Traffic. As several people pointed out, the proposed site is next to  the Commuter Rail right of way and near the a complex intersection involving a bridge and at least four streets, two of which (Somerville Avenue and Beacon Street) are heavily travelled. On the Cambridge side, this is mainly a residential area. Not only are there potential traffic issues from the hotel and restaurant, the loading dock will be hard to get into. Getting in and out will require time-consuming backing and filling. Deliveries should not be made late at night, when people are trying to sleep, nor during peak traffic hours (likely 7 to 10 AM and 3 to 7 PM).

Practicality. This is described as a "boutique hotel", but one of its sides looks out over the commuter rail line, which is frequented by roaring diesel trains belching smoke. Where will the customers be coming from and going to? If they are primarily associated with Harvard, a better location for a hotel would be across Beacon Street, perhaps at that four-story triangular building on the corner of Beacon and Oxford Streets. If they are coming from Porter Square, the walk needs to be made more convenient. If they are driving from Logan, they will be part of the traffic jam on Beacon Street during rush hour.

Benefit to the City. Somerville itself might benefit more from office development at the site than from a hotel/restaurant. Office workers would be more likely to come by T, reducing traffic. Porter Square provides ample lunch destinations, making a restaurant with its loading dock unnecessary. Has someone done an analysis of the tax revenue that would be made by office development versus a hotel/restaurant?

Mitigation Suggestions. If developers insist on placing a hotel there, here are a few mitigating suggestions:

1. Harvard brings in visiting professors for a semester at a time. Perhaps the hotel could be designed as partially residential, with semester-long leases. This would reduce transient traffic.

2. The restaurant isn't conveniently located for foot traffic. Perhaps they could dispense with the kitchen and instead make an arrangement with the plethora of Porter Square restaurants for service.

3. Harvard runs a night shuttle bus for students. Perhaps the hotel could arrange for this bus to stop at the hotel -- particularly if there were visiting faculty living there.

4. The Commuter Rail platform already runs 3/4 of the way to the Beacon Street bridge. Perhaps a stairway could be added near the bridge to make the T stop more accessible to the neighborhood.


I would like to develop my earlier suggestion that we work with the State authorities to extend the proposed Green Line spur, which currently stops at Union Square, to Porter Square with stations at Dane Street and Lowell Street. The four stops, Union, Dane, Lowell, and Porter, are about 1/2 mile apart. The Commuter Rail, which currently runs to North Station, would stop at Porter Square. The commuters, instead of changing to the Green Line at North Station, would do so at Porter. This would have a number of benefits:

1. More Efficient Use of Transportation Dollars.  The Green Line alone carries about 50% more riders per day than the entire Commuter Rail system, and does so more frequently with more stops. The North Station terminus is on the outskirts of the central business district; many commuters would change to the Green Line anyway; why not do it at Porter and turn around the Commuter Rail train there?

2. Somerville T Service. Currently Somerville gets almost no benefit from the Commuter Rail right-of-way, which cuts Somerville in half. We deserve good transit, and we aren't getting it.

3. Lower Somerville Pollution. The trains are noisy diesel trains, and their exhaust is an important contributor to Somerville's health burden. Replacing diesel trains with electrified trains would be very expensive. The Green Line, on the other hand, is already electrified.

4. Economic Development at T Stops. Each new T stop would, like Davis, form the nucleus of new economic development  In particular, McGrath Highway could be made a boulevard at grade, connecting Brickbottom, Boynton Yards, and Union Square with vastly improved crossings.

I am pleased to see that Somerville is making efforts to work with the community on these issues. Let's continue these efforts.

Thank you for your attention.

David Dahlbacka