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Telling the story

Steven Azar, Senior Planner, Economic Development Division, city of Somerville, Mass., has seen his share of success stories throughout an esteemed career in urban planning and vision generating. Add another bouquet to his impressive resume: 2012 Brownfield Renewal Person of the Year.

As with our first two winners, Azar was extremely humbled and awed by an award that was determined by a consensus of his peers. Similar to our first two winners—Monte Hilleman of Minnesota and Fred Delk of South Carolina—this modesty represents the essence of professional excellence. And the humble approach most likely serves Azar very well when it comes to interacting with numerous city, state and federal agencies and departments.

The first thing that impresses anyone about Azar is the fact that he is the quintessential Brownfield “Renaissance Man.” He has established vast working experience across cross-disciplinary platforms: Among them, engineering, planning, brokering and developing. He studied Environmental Engineering at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and began his career at the Bay Area offices of CH2M Hill, Inc. working on projects throughout California and in New South Wales, Australia.

Azar has been a project engineer and project manager, focusing on the remediation, permitting, design and construction efforts behind the redevelopment of industrial sites into neighborhood communities served by upgraded infrastructure.

In our conversation, Azar went out of his way to shower praise on Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone for being an urban redevelopment visionary in his own right—an enabler who, like Azar, has the knack of executing, making things happen. In fact, if one “Googles” “city of Somerville, Mass.” and inputs the mayor’s name, you'll probably stumble across a video of Mayor Curtatone leading viewers through a short 10 minute tour of his city, pointing out its many attributes and reasons to invest there. But the thing is, Curtatone leads the video tour while jogging through the town. It's apparent he's an athlete with abundant energy. This energy and enthusiasm can’t help but rub off on departmental supervisors, such as Azar.

Under Curtatone, Azar was named to the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, where he quickly rose within OSPCD’s Economic Development Division from Planner to Senior Planner and Senior Project/Program Manager.

One of the unique aspects of Somerville, as Azar pointed out to us, was that the city footprint is extremely dense. Sitting in the shadow of Boston, the city has about 76,000 residents—all living in 4.1 square miles. This makes Somerville one of the most densely populated community in New England, and the seventh most densely populated in the country.

Open space—all 123 acres of it—is at a premium. Only a fraction of buildable space is currently being used for active commercial businesses whose tax revenues are needed to sustain the city. So you can see what Azar is up against from a reuse and redevelopment viewpoint.

He has gone over the top in carrying out these redevelopment efforts amid the challenge that sits in front of him and his multi-disciplinary team.

Grant you That!
One of the watershed moments of Azar tenure in Somerville came in 2009 when he volunteered to take on Somerville's Brownfield Program. Through his efforts, Somerville has since been the recipient of 15 awards earmarked for the assessment, cleanup, and/or redevelopment of brownfield sites; six were awarded in 2012 totaling well over $2 million.

The awarding agencies include U.S. EPA, MassDevelopment, and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. In 2010, Azar submitted an EPA Hazardous Substance City-wide Assessment Grant application on the behalf of Somerville that was selected by the EPA as a national model.

These awards are not just gathering dust on a mantle: They’re hard at work: Azar and his team have leveraged these awards to incentivize commercial growth by limiting private sector exposure to costs required to remediate a site. One example of this includes Somerville's Brownfield Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund (BCRLF), awarded by the EPA, which Azar grew from $456,000 to more than $1.5 million.

In the past, we've heard about the state of Kentucky hosting "grant writing parties" to motivate public officials to up the ante on this crucial skill. Azar gets it: He talked about how preparing a solid grant proposal catches the attention of the agencies doling out the funds. Write a solid grant, the odds increase of receiving the capital needed to sustain the RLF. With the RLF robust and ready for development initiatives, it's a huge game-changer. For example, Azar and Somerville was able to assist a developer during the recent recession by contributing funding toward the razing of an abandoned packaging facility. In a tough economy, this is not possible to offer for any community that is strapped for funds.

As part of this project, work was required to extend a community pathway on an abandoned rail line adjacent to the project. These actions provided assurances necessary to attain bank financing resulting in the development of 199 residential units that began to be occupied in 2012. Additionally, Azar's utilization of the BCRLF contributed to the development of a new public ice skating rink that opened its doors in 2012.

He said it all starts with having an affinity to research and prepare a grant that can stand out among the masses of communities seeking monies for smart growth. The secret to grants? “It’s about telling a story,” Azar told us. “It’s that ability combined with supporting the story with metrics and scientific historical data about your town—data that serves as a ‘snapshot’ about your community."

He stated that the story-telling combined with the scientific, granular data about Somerville is a powerful combination.

We invite you to learn a great deal more about Steven Azar as part of this issue's Cover Story. There, you’ll be able to conclude for yourself what made Azar a runaway winner of the 2012 POY award.

Steve Dwyer,
Editorial Director

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