By Seth Daniel
The Chelsea City Council bucked the trend, and the trendy, by voting down zoning changes that would have allowed food trucks to operate in the City and also to institute lower parking requirements in the downtown – a nod to the popular sentiment among the development community that those living in the city centers don’t own cars.
Both popular notions were rather unpopular with Chelsea councillors.
The two zoning changes were part of a huge package submitted to the Council by City Manager Tom Ambrosino last spring and contemplated by the Council and Planning Board all summer.
A public hearing on the many changes was ongoing for most of the fall session of Council, with the vote on most of them slated for Monday.
Ambrosino had been pushing hard on the reduction in parking required for the downtown district – taking it from 1.5 spaces per unit to 0.5 per unit. The move was meant to spur development and renovations in the living units above existing businesses in the Broadway business district, catering to the notion that young professionals would occupy the new units and that they, typically, are believed not to bring cars with them.
“I’m not against developing and building, but I’ thinking of the residents that are here,” said Councillor Giovanni Recupero. “They say people don’t need cars, but they all have cars. People here need parking. If you build these things, where will you put these cars? You want to develop, find a place for the cars.”
Councillor Damali Vidot also spoke out against the matter.
“The fact of the matter is we are not acknowledging the elephant in the room and that’s to develop a Master Plan for this area,” she said. “I’m not anti-development, but pro-responsible development.”
Councillor Roy Avellaneda was also against the measure, having championed the idea of a downtown parking garage in the recent past.
“The data I’ve collected tells me a different story,” he said. “I’m told people use Uber and the Silver Line will lower the use of cars and we should relax parking requirements for development in the downtown to spur development. My data shows in the last two years we’ve had 10,000 more cars registered in the City…I say that the developers need to build underneath or they need to get creative. It can be done.”
Councillor Judith Garcia issued similar sentiments, saying the City needed to create a vision and then go forward with development that is smart and stable.
Council President Dan Cortell was the lone voice in agreement with Ambrosino.
“Building underground and with lifts, it’s not doable in my opinion for small scale residential units,” he said. “Can you dig down into the earth and make it financially feasible for a four-unit development. The answer is ‘no.’ It’s not happening.”
The Council voted to reject the downtown parking proposal 1-9, with Councillor Matt Frank absent.
Meanwhile, food trucks went down on a 5-5 vote – with eight votes needed for passage.
The zoning change would have brought the trendy food trucks into the fold of definitions within the zoning ordinances, which it currently is not. However, despite many meetings to hammer out an agreement on the change, councillors still had major concerns about how it would effect existing businesses.
“The issue is where are they going to be,” said Recupero. “I don’t want them to take from our established businesses that pay taxes and are part of the community. Food trucks are based anywhere, but not here.”
The zoning change would have allowed food trucks in the city anywhere, but would have prevented them from parking within 200 feet of an existing business.
Councillor Roy Avellaneda said the proposal doesn’t help the City and probably hurts taxpaying businesses.
“You’re going to have a Somerville truck here not paying anything, not even a meal’s tax,” he said. “The brick and mortar businesses pay a meal’s tax. They also pay property taxes…All we get out of food trucks is a couple hundred dollars in fees…Some restaurants on Everett Avenue have spent a lot of money to try to cater to the FBI employees, and now we’re going to put a food truck down there to take from that investment? What are we doing here?”
Councillor Leo Robinson proposed that the trucks not be allowed in the City all the time, but maybe only on special occasions.
Councillor Damali Vidot and Dan Cortell said they would like to get the change approved and allow food trucks to come into the city.
“The Chamber of Commerce supports and understands this,” said Cortell. “I would like to give this a pilot program, call it what you want, but lets get it started and go forward.”
It wasn’t to be though, as councillors did not come close to getting the eight votes. Those voting for food trucks were Vidot, Yamir Rodriguez, Enio Lopez, Judith Garcia and Cortell. Those voting against were Recupero, Paul Murphy, Luis Tejada, Avellaneda and Robinson.
The measure is expected to be amended and make a return to the Council next year.
Additionally, a whole host of non-controversial zoning changes passed on a 10-0 vote prior to the debate over food trucks and parking.
Those changes included:
- Dog Kennels/Doggie Daycare
- Adding the definition of Substance Abuse Counseling Centers, which will permit the expansion of counseling at the Methadone Clinic.
- Change the definition of light industry and light manufacturing to allow for renewable energy and lab/research.
- Residential units in the Business Retail an Retail Business 2 districts would not be allowed in the basement and ground floor.
- Dimensional requirements for the BR District should follow those of the R2 District.
- Extend the Light Industrial/Office 2 District to two parcels abutting Vila Street.
- Changing the table of uses for bakery/deli and food handling and preparation facilities.
- Changes to the Community Improvement Trust Fund.
- Instituting the Naval Hospital (Admiral’s Hill) Interim Planning Overlay District.
- Allowing vehicles for hire or return vehicles for hire in the Airport Related Overlay District.
- Changing the zoning district in the Cary Square area to Business 2.
- Changing the zoning district for several parcels on Washington Avenue in Prattville to Retail Business 2.