Off-Campus Explorations: West Somerville Neighborhood Association

Edward Beuchert, a founding member of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association who currently serves on its Board of Directors, poses for a picture on the steps of his house on Conwell Ave. on Oct. 26. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

Students who live in West Somerville may have received an informational pamphlet at the beginning of the school year from the West Somerville Neighborhood Association (WSNA), detailing the association’s devotion to preserving a safe, comfortable environment in residential West Somerville. West Somerville includes much of the original land on which Tufts University was founded, according to the City of Somerville’s website. 

The WSNA is a group of neighbors, primarily families and retired people, who seek to address issues in the neighborhood, including town-gown relations, according to Edward Beuchert, a founding member of the WSNA who currently serves on its Board of Directors.

“We discuss local neighborhood issues that affect the quality of life in our little West Somerville neighborhood,” Steve Cronin, a member of the Board of Directors and a lifelong resident of Somerville, told the Daily in an email.

The WSNA’s “Welcome to the Neighborhood” brochure describes its intent to work with community officials to keep the area “safe and pleasant.” The pamphlet also includes important information about Somerville noise ordinances and the proper disposal of trash.

In September, Beuchert, accompanied by a co-director, rang the doorbells of student residents in the area near Conwell Avenue, Curtis Avenue and Chetwynd Road to distribute the brochure. Students and long-term residents then exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, establishing a channel of communication between them.

Beuchert stressed the importance of maintaining a positive relationship and an open dialogue between Tufts students living off-campus and their neighbors.

“If there’s one message I could get across to students, it would be that if you’re going to have a party, the absolute best way to avoid problems with everybody is to quickly type up a notice,” Beuchert said. “It’s better to let the neighbors know ahead of time so there are no surprises, and if there’s a number that the neighbors can call instead of the police, then that’s going to work out better for everyone.”

Beuchert said that the unit of membership for the WSNA organization is the family, with one member of the family passing information along to close relatives. He added that the WSNA’s general membership, which is free, includes about eighty families. Additionally, according to Beuchert, all five members of the Board of Directors are homeowners.

“We certainly welcome people who rent, but … the people … who have been most active and care about this over the years are the people who actually own the homes themselves here,” he said.

Beuchert said the organization is largely email-based and utilizes Yahoo Groups as a platform to spread information and facilitate discussion among members. Jim Bossi, a director who lives on Chetwynd Road, added that the Board of Directors meets once or twice a month.

Beuchert said that a prime example of the WSNA collaborating with Tufts is their joint handling of a rat infestation in West Somerville. In summer 2011, Tufts began a series of renovation and construction projects. Beuchert said this renovation allowed an existing rat population to migrate to dumpsters on campus and move into the surrounding neighborhood. The WSNA worked with one of Tufts’ Directors of Community Relations, Barbara Rubel, to find and target the places on campus where rats were living.

Bossi explained that before the rat infestation, the neighborhood had been rat-free.

“All of a sudden, we were seeing them on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s subsided somewhat … partly because of how we promoted meetings and discovery of the dumpsters in different locations.”

Beuchert said that the investigation involved launching a campaign to encourage students to dispose of their food waste properly, since improperly discarded waste supplied a constant food source to rats in dumpsters.

“That’s the way a lot of problems happen, because people are trying to do something that feels good but don’t realize what the bigger repercussions of it [are],” Beuchert said.

Bossi added that the WSNA communicated with the city of Somerville about the rat infestation, and he believes the city responded adequately.

“They realized that there was a problem in other parts of the city, East Somerville a little bit, too,” he said. “So they changed all their disposal receptacles, and they put [in] all new receptacles … which prevented rodents and squirrels from getting into them.”

Rubel, who acts as a liaison between Tufts and the surrounding community, told the Daily in an email that the situation involving rats in Somerville had recently improved.

“The biggest culprit is improper disposal of garbage,” she explained. “Students can be part of the solution by making sure that all trash is properly disposed of in closed containers and that they are put out for pick-up at the proper time.”

An additional concern of the WSNA is Tufts’ increase in enrollment despite a limited ability to house students, according to Beuchert. In an open letter he published in the Daily on Oct. 15, 2015, Beuchert said that Tufts has increased its undergraduate population by more students than its dormitories can house. Approximately 36 percent of students lived off-campus during the 2015-2016 school year, according to Tufts’ Common Data Set.

Beuchert says that overcrowding has become a problem. Somerville’s municipal law allows no more than four unrelated tenants to share an apartment. Beuchert, however, said that illegal housing, especially student housing, has been facilitated largely by absentee investor landlords.

According to Beuchert, many landlords do not live in Somerville, residing instead in more affluent communities such as Winchester. He said landlords profit by exploiting Somerville’s housing laws, and some landlords convert dining rooms, living rooms and closets into bedrooms in order to fit in more tenants.

Beuchert suggested that Tufts build more dormitories to remedy the problem.

“We would like to house more juniors and seniors on the campus and are actively considering ways to accomplish that,” Rubel said when asked to comment on Tufts’ student housing situation.

Bossi requested more transparent discussion between the university and its host communities.

“I’d like to see a little more communication between the university and the cities, Medford and Somerville, so that they report to the city on a regular basis, like Cambridge,” he said, pointing to Cambridge’s Town Gown reports as an example for Tufts to follow.

Beuchert and Bossi also said that the WSNA would like to see a “master plan” detailing the university’s long-term goals.

According to Rubel, the university has a history of “master plans.” She said that Tufts recently worked with William Rawn Associates to assess the future of the university and find appropriate sites for construction.

“Prior to that, in the 1980s, Sasaki Associates carried out a similar exercise that also identified locations for specific projects,” she said. “The Campus Center and Olin Center are two of the projects that came out of that plan.”

But Bossi and Beuchert feel that Tufts has not communicated adequately with them about these expansion plans.

“We’re currently working with state representatives to try to find out if there is a master plan, or try to get them to produce a master plan, so that we’ll know what’s going on,” Bossi said.

Bossi and Beuchert were careful to specify that they hope to collaborate with the university community rather than antagonize it.

“We’re not here to have a contentious relationship,” Bossi said. “We’re here to preserve our rights, but also [to] cohabitate.”

Beuchert emphasized the mutual interests of students, residents and the university itself when it comes to many of these issues.

“We all live here together, just like we’re sharing the same Planet Earth,” Beuchert added. “We all share West Somerville.”