Somerville’s Beacon Street as seen from above in 2015. Image courtesy of Nick Allen / CC BY-SA 4.0

Late last week, Somerville became the first Greater Boston municipality in years to completely rewrite its 30-year-old zoning code when its city council adopted a new, form-based code that promotes denser development in many places city-wide.

The initiative was seven years in the making and could unlock more development opportunities city-wide. The form-based code regulates development through standards for 23 different building types.

“For years we have steadfastly worked, as a community, to ensure that we have the best possible zoning ordinance that meets the goals and expectations of our residents and businesses, that enables us to expand affordable housing, jobs, development and so much more to move our community forward while ensuring residents of all backgrounds can afford to stay, and build their homes and businesses here,” Mayor Joe Curtatone said in a statement. “This has been a labor of love, and I am thrilled to finally say we have an ordinance that is progressive, that makes sense, and that keeps Somerville on the move.”

Among a wide array of language, regulatory and procedural improvements, the new 552-page ordinance also:

  • Uses clear, simple language and illustrations to make zoning understandable to a broad audience.
  • Permits backyard cottage accessory dwelling units, including tiny houses, and common home improvements such as dormers, bay windows, rear additions and porches by right.
  • Provides graduated density bonuses for larger lots, net-zero ready buildings, and 100 percent affordable housing buildings.
  • Requires the majority of new development to provide 20 percent of new units as affordable dwelling units.
  • Establishes building sustainability standards to reach Somerville’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050.
  • Requires a special permit for “formula businesses,” large national chains like McDonald’s or CVS.
  • Repeals minimum car parking requirements for the majority of the city and establishes minimum bicycle parking requirements
  • Establishes parking maximums in all areas within walking distance to the MBTA’s Red, Orange and Green Line rapid transit stations.
  • Requires new development to widen sidewalks.
  • Requires the cost of accessory parking to be unbundled from the cost of housing and commercial space charged to tenants.
  • Requires higher-density buildings and larger businesses to implement transit demand management plans.
  • Entitles mixed-use, transit-oriented, high-density development akin to Assembly Square through a master planning process.
  • Establishes a new Urban Design Commission to review how the proposed design of new development impacts Somerville’s public realm.

The new ordinance and zoning atlas will soon be posted at

Somerville Rezones Entire City

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min