In Somerville, torrential summer rain and the accompanying anxiety are all too familiar. The hand-wringing over whether you did or didn’t smell any moisture as you descended downstairs. The startling sight of your belongings bobbing like buoys next to the washer and dryer as water floods into your basement.
In the November/December 2015 edition of Scout Somerville, residents like Cedar Street’s Suzahne Riendeau recalled losing roughly $50,000 in possessions to flooding. She told us she still gets nervous every time it rains. Just this summer, a handful of heavy rainstorms flooded the downstairs of Buffalo Exchange in Davis Square, causing the secondhand shop to shutter for several weeks.
Flooding has been a chronic problem, thanks in part to the city’s silt- and clay-heavy soil, which absorbs rainwater slowly, and the fact that much of Somerville is covered by impermeable surfaces. So late last year, the city made public a plan to help mitigate the issue. In November, officials held the first in a series of community meetings, where they proposed an infrastructure project at Union Square’s Nunziato Field that would consist of installing a major stormwater storage tank beneath the park green and dog park. (Nunziato is situated on the block along Summer Street between Vinal and Putnam Avenues, not far from the Community Growing Center.)
In many ways, the location of the storage tank would be a good one. It’s on a city-owned parcel in an area especially susceptible to floods, and it’s a step toward alleviating the problem, which will only grow more dire as infrastructure continues to age, sea levels rise and precipitation patterns become more volatile.
But not everyone is on board with the plan. For one, there’s the price tag. It’s a $12 million project with an additional $1 million allotted for a redesign of the new field and dog park after installation. And, more irksome to many, Nunziato Field and the adjoining dog park would be decommissioned and torn up to install the underground tank, rendering the area completely unusable for the duration of the three-year project. Even with the knowledge that the park would reopen with improvements, abutting neighbors and those who regularly enjoy Nunziato find that information tough to swallow.
Jacob Kramer is one Union Square resident who’s not on board with the idea. He says the sudden and definite nature in which the city announced its plans was problematic to him and to other residents who heard about and attended the most recent public meeting in April, the fourth and final meeting on the proposal.
“I had misgivings about [the project],” Kramer says. “The city presented it as a done deal … It really felt like the city wasn’t listening to us.”
Kramer also expresses concern about the effectiveness of the system overall. He was curious about what he saw as more modern and creative infrastructure solutions like the artificial wetland that’s been put in place near the Alewife MBTA station to help control flooding. In Scout’s 2015 coverage on the city’s runoff issue, researchers talked about how low impact design projects—more trees, pervious pavement, green roofs—could work more effectively to mitigate flood water in Somerville, versus large-scale projects like the one proposed for Nunziato Field.
“What could be done to treat wastewater as a resource, instead of a nuisance?” Kramer ventures. He and partner Penny Taylor started a Google group called “Friends of Nunziato” almost immediately after the April meeting, at which they had circulated a sign-in sheet for those interested in organizing more discussions to critique the current project.
Another layer in the unveiling of this project is that it coincides with a contested Ward 3 Alderman seat. Nunziato is situated in this ward’s jurisdiction.
“There was some turbulence at the earlier meetings, but there was major opposition at the last meeting,” explains Ward 3 Alderman Robert “Bob” McWatters, who was present for the public meetings. The board’s support is necessary for construction to move forward.
McWatters is serious about working on floodwater infrastructure, and soon. He lost his own car in a flash flood on the corner of Hall and Cedar streets about eight or nine years ago. He worries about how much worse the flooding will become without infrastructure updates, saying, “You could get raw sewage in your basement.”
But McWatters will not support the Nunziato stormwater project at this time. Residents in Ward 3 have complained that they hadn’t heard about the project with enough notice to attend meetings—if they heard about it at all. “I wish [the city] had public meetings sooner, maybe six to nine months earlier, so that people had more time to digest,” McWatters says.
“[Residents] didn’t feel empowered,” he adds. “It’s about the process. I hear them loud and clear.”
Thus, the project will be subject to more public working sessions. According to city officials, additional meetings will be announced on the City of Somerville website and will likely occur in the fall, after engineers have completed additional studies.
“The stakes are high. This is the only park in the neighborhood,” adds Ben Ewen-Campen, who is challenging McWatters for the Ward 3 seat. While Ewen-Campen also notes the need for flood mitigation, he explains that it’s crucial for the city to take in more feedback from the neighborhood. “The disruptive projects that succeed are the ones that come from the community.”
While Ewen-Campen says he doesn’t doubt the Planning Department’s hard work in developing a project that would benefit infrastructure, he wants to know more about whether this particular option would be most effective in the long term. Like Kramer, he’s curious if a more robust public conversation could direct the project in new ways. “Is this the best strategy? Is [the city] actually looking at other options?” Ewen-Campen asks.
Kramer speculates that the sudden emergence of this stormwater project is connected to the a $1 billion development project in Union Square, which will be overseen by US2 Novus group, a major real estate investment firm that’ll be overseeing 2.3 million square feet of new development in the square.
“Who benefits most from this infrastructure‚ and who pays for it?” Kramer asks.
This story appears in the September/October print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.