Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Residents Asked to Shape New Use Guidelines for Powder House School

At a recent community meeting, Somerville planning staff shared a draft of new guidelines for defining possible future uses of the former Powder House Community School in West Somerville. Residents are being encouraged to read the guidelines (posted below) and offer any feedback or suggested edits.

The draft is the culmination of more than 70 hours of discussions at community meetings held since June 2010. It marks a new phase in the joint City-public process. Once finalized, the guidelines will form the foundation of new zoning uses for the site. The guidelines will also provide a framework to issue a formal RFP (request for proposals) to developers or other interested parties, who may then submit their proposed projects for the site. In short, the guidelines will move the process closer to finding a new use for the site of the school, which has been closed since 2003.

Please either use the comment section below to provide your feedback, or for more substantial edits, please do the following:

  1. Copy the text of the draft guidelines below.
  2. Paste the text into a word document.
  3. Edit the document using the Track Changes function or make your edits using ALL CAPS (so that they can be easily found).
  4. Email your edited document to resistat@somervillema.gov.
UPDATE ADDED Feb. 13: The Powderhouse Community School Reuse Neighborhood Organizing Group, a group of residents, writes that they have "discussed this proposal and provided extensive comments and suggestions to the City based on all the feedback we have received at community meetings, through e-mail, and during neighborhood conversations." Their feedback can be found by going HERE, and then, once there, on upper right, click "Download Original".

Powder House School Site

Design Standards & Guidelines -- DRAFT

I. Purpose

To establish guidelines for the reuse or redevelopment of the Powder House Community School (PHCS) site that ensures an appropriately scaled development that physically integrates into the existing neighborhood with adequate open space that creates recreational and environmental value to the City. These guidelines are intended to supplement the Planned Unit Development (PUD) Design Guidelines in Section 16.7 and Special Permit with Site Plan Review (SPSR) Design Guidelines found in Section 5.2 of the Somerville Zoning Ordinance.

II. Use and Dimensional Standards

Development must meet the following use and dimensional standards:

1.     Uses: The following uses shall be allowed:
a.     Office/R&D
b.     Small Retail and Service
c.     Medium Retail and Service
d.     Eating and Drinking
e.     Residential
f.      Accommodations (ie hotel)
g.     Educational/Recreational/Institutional
h.     Public park/Recreational facility
i.       Parking (along with other uses)
j.       Protected Uses

Retail uses shall be limited to a total of no greater than 18,000 square feet.

These uses are based upon Clusters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I, J in Table 7.13.  Retail uses that would be limited in size are in clusters B, C and D.

2.     Building Height & Mechanical Equipment. New buildings should not exceed 45 feet in height, except that all elevator and stairwell penthouses, roof mounted mechanical equipment (including enclosure, if any) and other similar rooftop installations shall be set back behind a plane inclined at 45 degrees from the vertical, beginning at the maximum height of the building, along all street lines and rear lot line and shall be screened

Screening shall be pursuant to Section 10.5.2 of the Zoning Ordinance.. 

3.     Minimum Lot Size: The minimum lot size shall be set to include the entire 80,800 square foot site, but with the understanding that a user shall be allowed to dedicate portions of the site back to the City of Somerville for a dedicated city park.

4.     Setbacks: As a transition to abutting residential structures, a minimum of 15 feet of side yard setback is required.  Within 25 feet of a side yard, no structure may be greater than 30 feet in height, except that residential townhouses, two-family homes or single-family homes may be 35 feet in height.  The side yard setback and height requirements shall not apply to any application reusing the existing PHCS as long as the structure does not further encroach within setback areas.

5.     Development Intensity:  A development shall not exceed a FAR of 1.0 and a maximum of 35 residential units.  A development that reuses the existing school building may exceed the FAR and residential unit requirement, providing up to 40 units and add up to 10% of additional space to the existing structure.

6.     Dedicated Parkland. A portion of the parcel’s total square footage, with a minimum of 0.75 acres, shall be improved for public open space (including on-site sidewalks, public paths, park and/or playground use).  Dedicated parkland may be placed above underground parking areas, but shall not be elevated at a grade more than three feet above street level.  The public open space shall be dedicated to the City of Somerville unless there is a determination that the long-term user of the site is better capable of maintaining the open space. 

7.     Parking Requirements:  Parking requirements shall be:
a.         1 space per 800 sf office
b.         1 space per 1500 sf small retail
c.         1 space per 800 sf medium retail
d.         1 space per residential unit
e.         1 space per 400 sf educational / institutional

Applicants will be required to meet the parking and loading requirements in Section 9.17 of the Somerville Zoning Ordinance (following the parking requirements for the CCD districts developed)

III. Development Standards

1.     Lighting. Lighting shall be appropriate to the surrounding historic and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood character. The light levels of the development and open space should be designed for safety while minimizing glare and light trespass.  Applicants will be required to prove that light trespass onto adjacent residential properties is minimized or eliminated.

2.     Parking Optimization Plan. Applicants shall include a Parking Optimization Plan illustrating how management and possible pricing strategies will encourage shared use and reasonable turnover of parking spaces.

3.     Pedestrian Connections. Continuous pedestrian connections shall be supported between major points of pedestrian activity on the site, including, but not limited to, the connection through the site connecting Packard Avenue at Broadway to Holland along the side of the existing Tufts Administration Building (TAB). 

4.     Pedestrian Oriented Requirements. To promote pedestrian activity, new or renovated buildings shall be designed with windows and separate front entrance doors to lobbies, retail and business, and other sources of pedestrian activity. These entrances shall be oriented to existing or proposed public sidewalks, paths, and/or open space. 

5.     Service Areas and Loading Spaces. Ground level mechanical equipment, utility and trash enclosures, loading docks and other utilitarian and service elements shall not abut the street edge(s) of the parcel and shall be visually screened.

6.     Shadow Effects. Buildings shall be designed to minimize shadow and wind to open space and residential areas especially between 10 am and 2 pm in the
winter. Shadow effects shall be demonstrated in technical studies.

7.     Transportation Analysis. The applicant shall provide a Transportation Study and a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Plan tailored to the proposed site and mix of use on the site. The scope of the document should be prepared in consultation with the City of Somerville’s Director of Traffic & Parking and may include a project description and a description of the existing conditions of the transportation network in the vicinity of the site.  The following items may be required as part of a Transportation Study:
a.     Counts of existing traffic volumes.
b.     Projected traffic volumes for the proposed Development based on accepted
c.     engineering standards and adapted to local conditions.
d.     Projected size of delivery vehicles, and frequency and days/hours of delivery.
e.     Reviews of accident history trends in the vicinity of the site.
f.      Analyses of the Development impacts on the transportation network in the vicinity of the site.
g.     Examination of transportation by all feasible modes, including automobile, transit, bicycle and pedestrian.
h.     Explanation of consistency with City transportation plans.

If the impact analyses indicate that safety or capacity will be adversely affected by the proposed development, the Applicant will indicate appropriate mitigation measures, subject to the approval of the Director of Traffic and Parking, prior to the granting of a special permit.

  1. Utilities. Utilities and wiring shall be placed below ground.

IV. Design Guidelines
These guidelines are intended to provide general standards for building massing, siting
and articulation.

1.     Street Facing Facades:  Structures should front the sidewalk along any frontage that is not occupied by the required open space.  Varied architecture should be created by using recessed or projected entryways, bays, canopies, awnings, residential balconies on second floor or above, and other architectural elements.

Where there are ground-floor commercial uses should include thirty-foot-wide commercial bays with independent entrances onto the street to create visual and pedestrian interest.

Non-residential ground floor façades should have a minimum 75% transparent material, and second floor facades should have a minimum of 40% transparent material. These openings should provide views into the building and should not be blocked by interior storage, non-artistic displays, or greater than 30% internally mounted signage.

2.     Buildings in Context. The new or renovated design should interface with the adjacent Tufts Administration Building through appropriately applied features that frame outdoor open spaces and/or screen other utilitarian and service elements.  Visible rear and side façades should maintain a similar character to the front façade of the building and the intended character of the surrounding district.

3.     Exterior Building Materials. All visible portions of new buildings should use high quality, durable, and aesthetically appropriate exterior building materials. Particular attention should be paid where properties abut residential property. Predominant exterior building materials should include an appropriate combination of brick, glass, wood, artistically used metal, stone, or stucco.   

4.     Height Transitions. A transition in height should be established where new development adjoins low-rise residential properties.

5.     Mechanicals.  All rooftop-building systems, including wireless communications facilities, should be incorporated into the building form in a manner integral to the building architecture, including screening with materials that harmonize with buildings’ exterior finishes.

6.     Neighborhood-serving Uses. It is strongly encouraged that, should any non-residential use be included in a development, the mix of uses proposed for the site have an emphasis on neighborhood-serving retail uses and community enriching services.

7.     New Buildings. Massing and height of new buildings should be articulated in a manner compatible with the physical character of the surrounding districts, particularly where a building abuts a residential property. Whenever possible, historical variety in the scale, rhythm, and relationship of buildings to pedestrian public ways should be preserved.

8.     Parking Entrances: Entrances to on-site, off-street parking should be designed to minimize conflict with pedestrians.

9.     Public Art. Installation of public art is encouraged to add visual interest and distinguishing features to landscaped or other public areas.

10.  Signage. All signs should respect buildings’ context and be oriented to pedestrians.

11.  Park:  The dedicated parkland/open space should a simple but elegant design, should be located to support public gathering (i.e. not hidden behind the development site), and be interconnected to the connection between Broadway and the TAB site.  The parkland should include elements that meet the needs of the neighborhood and the community as well as the new development. 

12.  Parking: The project should investigate the opportunity to share parking between uses to minimize the amount of paved parking areas and/or garages.  Parking should be located underground, if possible.  Parking may be located at-grade, underground or in parking decks that are shielded from adjacent residential property and the street by portions of the structure not being used for parking.  Parking in decks or at grade should be designed so as to reduce their visibility from Broadway and from adjacent residential uses. 

13.  Connections: Any proposed development shall support improved access to surrounding neighborhoods by means of sidewalk connections, crosswalks, landscaping, traffic signalization and traffic calming methods.

14.  Green Elements: Applicants shall demonstrate the project is capable of meeting LEED for buildings, LEED-ND, or a viable alternative standard for green building and neighborhood design.

IV. Development Review Process

1.     Steps for Site Disposition:  The City will seek to have the parcel made available for development through a Request For Proposals (RFP).  The RFP process will require interested parties to identify their proposed use program, general site strategy, purchase price, and capacity and track record of the development team including the design team.  Preliminary design work may be required but is permitted to change after developer selection.  The selected developer shall work with the community through a series of charrette sessions to design an effective strategy for project site design.  After completion of this process, the project shall be submitted for development review by the Planning Board.

2.     Method of Review:  The dimensional requirements, uses, standards and guidelines above shall be achieved by placing an overlay on the PHCS site through zoning.  All projects developed on the site must meet the requirements of the overlay.  A project master plan must be submitted to the Planning Board for review, followed by an additional hearing for a special permit or special permits for the project. 

This review process follows the pattern for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) under the Somerville Zoning Ordinance.  The proposal above would need to be developed into a new PUD district to incorporate the vision into zoning.


  1. Height proposed seems reasonable - about the size of a triple decker

    City should take a more assertive role in owning the parkland
    Dedicated Parkland should be contiguous
    Some of the parking requirements seem difficult to conceptualize
    City should incorporate zip car or similar sharing systems

    How will affordable housing be covered?

    Noise mitigation should be included

    Service Areas and Loading Spaces should also avoid aboutting residential properties and open space paths

    Green roofs -- that include gardens that are active and useable should be included

  2. Please don't sell this property for development. I realize that there is a lot of interest in getting the land back into use, but I don't think the city is going to net much money because the building either has to be torn down or completely redone. The size of the property provides so much potential for the city to develop down the line into any number of uses, but if it is sold for development, then it will be gone FOREVER. What if we need the site for a new school in 10-20 years?! I wouldn't be advocating for holding it if it was small like Traffic and Parking and I wouldn't be advocating for holding it if I thought we'd get lots of money for it, but we're unlikely to lots of money. So why not leave it alone or tear it down and build a park to keep it available for future use TBD? I really think we should be thinking more creatively about how to keep the property under city ownership. I would happily fundraise to help make that happen.

  3. I'm jumping into this discussion late...just moved to the neighborhood a year ago and happened to walk by the PHCS today. Googled it when I got home and found this discussion. Has anyone proposed that this site be used as a community center? I'd love to see an active adult ed. program, a home for a community chorus,band and community theater, classes in art, dance, music, cooking, fun topics based on the talents of those who live here in the neighborhood. I too, would fundraise for this!

  4. The Powderhouse Community School Reuse neighborhood organizing group has discussed this proposal and provided extensive comments and suggestions to the city based on all the feedback we have received at community meetings, through e-mail, and during neighborhood conversations. While we are unable to post these comments directly in this blog, we are happy to make them available to people. If you are interested, please send me an e-mail at mcp63@cornell.edu.

    Michael Panis, on behalf of Joyce Shortt, Brian Harris, Rachel Heller, Barry Rafkin, Richard Nilsson , Michael Chiu, Alba Chitouras, Costa Chitouras, Lisa Tatterson, and Richard Shortt

  5. Michael, I just added a note linking to the group's feedback within the article above. Thank you for your thoughtful review of this proposal. Your comments will also be forwarded to the City planners working on this project.


Please note that you are about to comment on a blog moderated by the City of Somerville. Questions and comments will be moderated, edited, and responded to as time allows.

Also note, there are certain legal terms associated with posting to this website which include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. No comments or posts may endorse any candidate or political parties for political office;
2. No comments or posts may advertise or offer to sell any goods or services; and
3. No comments or posts may defame or otherwise violate the legal rights of others.

A complete version of the legal terms and conditions for posting to this website is available here: http://somervilleresistat.org/uploads/Blog_legal_terms.pdf