Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Union Square arts overlay district

A nice article from The Somerville News:

The arts overlay district in Union Square provides zoning relief, encourages growth

By Julia Fairclough

The adoption of the Union Square zoning, which includes the arts overlay district, will provide much-needed clarity for arts-related development, in addition to protecting precious space for artist use.

The zoning adoption is critical during this time of revival as the city awaits the arrival of the Green Line extension in Union Square, city officials agree. Developers will be attracted to building opportunities there, and passing the overlay protection will ensure that uses are set aside for the artists.

"This is a very positive development and the two-fold aspect is the most intriguing," said Richard Graf, the real estate advisor to ArtistLink, an arm of the Massachusetts Cultural Council that helps artists find work space. "This will help the artists, and help the square. I'm glad it stayed in the legislation...It will help solidify the character of the square for creative businesses and help speed up the redevelopment."

Passed at the city's Board of Alderman's meeting on April 23, the zoning ordinance has been in the works for the past fours years, with the goal to restore Union Square as the commercial center and better position it for the Green Line extension that will be in place by 2014. City officials have been saying that Union Square is a "hidden gem" that needs more attention.

The zoning will create three new areas: A commercial district spanning Washington Street and Somerville Avenue, a transit district around the proposed T stop and the arts overlay district that will encourage artists to take up residence.

The arts overlay district was created to encourage the preservation and enhancement of arts-related uses, particularly within Union Square, according to the zoning ordinance posted at www.somervillema.gov/ (click on "city departments," then "planning and zoning" and "Union Square rezoning proposal" and then "rezoning proposal 2008" and finally onto "Zoning amendment - adopted and ordained April 23, 2009.")

The district is also intended to preserve and enhance the area as a center for a variety of retail, business services, housing and office uses, as well as to promote a strong "pedestrian character and scale" throughout the district.

Specifically, the new zoning clarifies the following:

• The definition of artist live/work space as a building or any portion containing units of at least 750 square feet used for both residential and artist studio space. These households must include at least one artist certified by the city. Retail sales of art produced on site will not take place more than 12 hours per week.

• The definition of an artist studio space as space used for the creation, production, rehearsal or teaching of any visual art or craft, "including but not limited to painting, drawing, graphic design, photography, video, film, sculpture, and pottery; of written works of fiction or nonfiction; or of any performing art, whether for live or recorded performance, including music, dance, and theater, and accessory sales of such art."

• Expanding the definition of an artists as a "visual artist, craftsperson, musician or other performing artist, photographer or writer" and the office of an architect or landscape architect.

Parking requirements will also be relaxed within the overlay district. For example, an applicant may make either a cash payment in lieu of providing the required parking, or a partial cash payment, according to the ordinance, although it didn't specify amounts. The minimum parking requirements may also be reduced if applicants submit a plan demonstrating that such reduction will not have adverse community impacts.

The detailed, 50-page ordinance also outlines design guidelines that encompass signage and awning design, locations of entrances, building materials, pedestrian access, parking design, and so on. The Planning Board will serve as the special permit granting authority for arts-related uses. Variances would be granted separately by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

City officials are relieved to finally create clarity between what the arts community wants to do and what the inspectional services department sees can actually happen, said Greg Jenkins, executive director of the Somerville Arts Council.

Changing the previous vague term "artist housing" to defining what is an artist live/work space and what is an artist studio, with explicit parameters, is important to the artist community, Jenkins said. The ordinance also broadens the actual definition of art.

He added this is not just related to Union Square. "If you want to put an artist studio on Highland Avenue, there was never a defined use for one," he said.

For developers, the ordinance provides incentives to build for artist use, which is also good news for artists, Jenkins said. He added that the ordinance does not call for more building, but creates incentive or disincentive for certain kinds of development. "It creates a baseline by which the city says this is the type of activity that you want here," he said. "It's about relief for artists."

Will the new zoning laws create more studio space? "We don't know yet," Jenkins said. "It still takes money and a developer," he said. Once the economy turns around, the city will see more of what is to come.

Developers will be eyeballing Union Square as the Green Line project picks up, so having the zoning in place will keep the attention on the arts and provide a framework for developers to follow, said Beth Driscoll, a longtime resident, artist and former Somerville Arts Council board member, who worked closely with the city over the past four years.

It means a lot for the future economy of Union Square, as artists are a proven economic catalyst for underdeveloped areas, she said.

"The decision to reward development for arts related uses will benefit everyone in the city by making the Union Square district a more desirable place to live and work, while also encouraging economic growth," Driscoll said.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

An age-old question

Paper or plastic?

The paper bag has made a comeback in the grocery store. For the last few weeks, Shaw's in Porter Square has been offering paper grocery bags as an alternative to plastic and it couldn't have come at a more perfect moment for me. I used to shop at Trader Joe's quite a bit, but haven't been going there much in the past year. Consequently, all the Trader Joe's paper bags that I'd amassed to use for my recycling got used up, and I've recently been trying to figure out how to get more bags without having to go all the way to Trader Joe's for them. Now, Shaw's has brought them to me.

Like the rest of the ecologically minded grocery shoppers in the country, I've adopted the "bring your own bag" ethos enthusiastically, and have stockpiled a supply of them which I keep in the trunk of my car. Inevitably though, I walk into the grocery store without noticing I've left them there until I'm at the register. Extremely frustrating, especially when the only alternative is to accept horrible, nasty plastic bags. So when this happened a couple of weeks ago, and I spied a stack of paper bags quietly sitting where they used to in the old "paper or plastic" days, I was pretty ecstatic.

Shaw's has been absolutely silent public-relations-wise regarding this move, at least to my knowledge. It seems that they'd leverage the environmental advantages of the return to paper in their advertising, but they don't seem to have gone there yet. According to the information on the bags themselves, they are made of at least 40% post-consumer waste, and are "100% recyclable," not to mention biodegradable.

Just think what it would be like if America got rid of all the plastic grocery bags and returned to paper and reusable bags. No plastic bags tattered and flapping in the wind in the branches of the Catalpa tree, no poison plastic bag factories cranking out pollution, and the growth of that island of crap floating around the Pacific would slow exponentially. Heavenly.

Of course, I'm getting way ahead of myself. I'm sure the plastic bag industry will fight hard to survive; they've been enjoying some fat decades. At least choice is back. I'm just relieved that my recycling has a place to go again and that my imperfect memory won't result in plastic bag consumption, at least when I shop at Shaw's.

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