Helping Clients Navigate Somerville’s New Zoning Ordinance

Supporting the City’s Growth and Development

June 11, 2020

In recent years, Somerville city officials have aggressively, and successfully, courted developers, retailers, tech giants, and life science companies to drive the city’s reinvention. Located just three miles north of Boston, Somerville has been experiencing a transformative construction boom. VHB has proudly worked side by side with the City and our clients to support Somerville’s growth—helping reposition former industrial sites into vibrant mixed-use developments, permitting and designing much needed housing for local residents, adding new retail and restaurant locations to spark the local economy, and planning and designing new roadways and subway infrastructure to improve mobility for residents and guests.

In December of 2019, the City adopted a new zoning ordinance, marking the first major zoning overhaul in Somerville since 1990. The goal is to provide Somerville with an effective, responsive, fair, user-friendly, and predictable but flexible system to regulate development across the city. Senior Environmental Planner Kyle Greaves, who is actively engaged in several Somerville developments, noted, “Somerville has also been very active in ongoing neighborhood planning under Somerville By Design, and updating their comprehensive City plan. These plans set the goals but are advisory. The new zoning code aims to keep these development goals aligned and provides the City with a regulatory tool to implement the City’s vision and align it with long-term planning.”

The new 552-page ordinance regulates development through standards for 23 different building types; requires most new housing developments to provide 20% affordable housing; establishes building sustainability standards to reach Somerville's commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050; and requires higher density buildings and larger businesses to submit Mobility Management Plans and implement transportation demand management programs and services, among many other regulations and standards.

Many of these new regulations were developed and refined through the master planning exercise for Assembly Row—a vibrant neighborhood featuring approximately 5M square feet of residential, office, and retail space along the Mystic River. Since 2006, Federal Realty Investment Trust (Federal Realty) has worked to transform an underutilized industrial neighborhood into a thriving destination. VHB worked alongside Federal Realty and multiple stakeholders to develop a comprehensive master plan—including onsite roadways and new utility infrastructure—sustaining a decade-long development project. We continue to manage the design and permitting for this project’s success and support Federal Realty’s goals for this transit-oriented development.

VHB’s experience in Somerville includes additional noteworthy developments, including Partners HealthCare Systems’ headquarters and several projects at the Tufts University Medford-Somerville Campus, and as the City continues to grow, so does our portfolio. Several of our environmental planners, site/civil engineers, and transportation engineers are actively engaged in Somerville projects, including Boynton Yards, XMBLY, EDGE Assembly Square, and several development projects along McGrath Highway. Our project managers fully understand these new adapted regulatory requirements, enabling them to efficiently design and permit solutions that work.

Hugh Hahn, PE, is a Senior Project Manager who is engaged in a number of current projects, including EDGE Assembly Square, and has supported Assembly Row since its inception. Hugh says, “VHB has been on the front lines working with our clients, preparing some of the very first permitting submissions under the new zoning, and working with the City to help identify, respond to, and in some cases shape these procedures. Developers are looking to us to provide certainty to this process, identify opportunities, and potential pit falls.”

Brian Fairbanks, PE, Senior Project Manager with extensive Somerville site/civil engineering experience who is guiding the Boynton Yards Master Plan and Boynton Yards 101 South Street development adds, “Our team’s ability to interpret, apply, and argue these new zoning regulations is invaluable, and our clients appreciate having an informed and responsive champion in their court.”

The City is hopeful that the new ordinance will give Somerville an advantage at attracting investment over other communities. If you have any questions about the new Somerville Zoning Ordinance or how these regulations will impact your development or any Somerville development project needs, please email Kyle Greaves, Brian Fairbanks, or Hugh Hahn.

101 South Street Building with street, cars, and pedestrians PUMA headquarters building with streets, cars, and sidewalks Partner’s HealthCare headquarters building