The City of Somerville is moving forward with plans to build a new public safety complex at 90 Washington St. in East Somerville after stalling for more than three years. A virtual meeting was held on Feb. 16 to gather input on the project from members of the Somerville community.
The city seized the four-acre plot of land through eminent domain in February 2019 with plans to build a new fire and police station, but construction has been on hold since then.
“Building a new public safety building is important for a multitude of reasons,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email to the Daily. “The existing facility at 220 Washington Street is beyond its useful life — it does not meet the needs of the existing tenants or visitors, nor does it help us meet other citywide goals like those in Somerville Climate Forward. … The new office building will be a flexible space that meets the needs of Police, Fire, Dispatch, and Emergency Management.”
The new public safety complex will serve as both a fire station and a police station. The city spokesperson said housing fire and police in one building benefits emergency response and overall efficiency.
“Somerville already has police and fire in one building at the existing public safety building,” the spokesperson wrote. “Colocating SPD and SFD on one site makes coordination during large emergencies easier. In addition to SPD and Engine 3, the new public safety building will house SFD Administration to further streamline operations and to move their team into an accessible building.”
The community meeting on Feb. 16 opened with introductions and brief updates from some of the project leaders, followed by smaller discussions in virtual breakout rooms. Senior Planner Ted Fields began by framing the agenda of the meeting.
“The goal of tonight’s meeting is really to follow up on the first meeting held in December, where you told us what you wanted to see on the Washington Street site,” Fields said at the meeting. “By that I mean what new land uses, like stores, community facilities, affordable housing, in addition to a proposed safety building.”
Senior Project Manager Melissa Woods discussed the previous community meeting in December, when residents expressed frustration with what they saw as a lack of transparency in the project.
“After the Dec. 13 meeting, we received some critique about members of the community not knowing where we were in our community process, and I want to say ‘thank you’ for that critique,” Woods said at the meeting. “It’s important for planners like myself and Ted to sometimes get out of the weeds, look up and convey the message of where we are to the community that’s participating in our process.”
Woods continued by defending the city’s choice to seize the property in 2019 and begin the development of the complex.
“The City Council and the Somerville Redevelopment Authority took this property because they saw value in having a site that not only could be the public safety building, but could be the public safety building and a community vision,” Woods said. “There is enough opportunity on this site for the public safety building and implementation of a community vision.”
In their email to the Daily, the city spokesperson also emphasized that the land at 90 Washington St. can be used for other purposes in addition to the public safety complex.
“The public safety building is just one element of the 4-acre site at 90 Washington Street,” the spokesperson wrote. “This property was acquired because it could be the new site of the public safety building in addition to other uses that come out of a community visioning process.”
The development of the public safety complex comes amid a citywide rethinking of racial justice and policing. As a result, many residents have raised concerns regarding how the presence of the new building will affect communities of color in Somerville.
“The Racial and Social Justice Department is leading conversations about public safety and policing,” the spokesperson wrote. “This building needs to be flexible and adaptable enough to be able to change as an outcome of those discussions.”
Denise Molina Capers, Somerville’s racial and social justice director, also attended last month’s meeting and outlined steps that the RSJ department is taking to address community concerns.
“A critical component that the RSJ department is partaking in is with the staffing and operations analysis of the Somerville Police Department,” Molina Capers said.
Woods also emphasized the city’s efforts to take social justice into account while proceeding with the construction plans.
“I think the point that’s really important here is that we have a lot of employees and departments working on reimagining policing, public safety buildings, the 90 Washington St. project,” Woods said. “What I can commit to the community is that if you want to engage with us, we will get you to the right avenue.”
The Public Safety Building Committee plans to meet virtually again on Wednesday. The city expects construction of the complex to begin next year and wrap up in 2024, according to a presentation shared in last month’s meeting.