By Dan Atkinson – Printed in Somerville Journal, March 10, 2015
Union Square residents and activists are pushing back against a residence-heavy development plan proposed by the square’s master developer and calling for a seat at the table to negotiate plans for the area.At a Somerville By Design meeting at the Union Square Post Office on March 9, more than 50 people came out to discuss plans for the areas by the incoming Green Line T station.
Last week, master developer US2 proposed putting up 925 residential units and 600,000 square feet of commercial development near the incoming T station, which angered residents who have been pushing for more commercial space in the square.
“There may be folks here who love [US2]’s plan, but I haven’t heard from them,” joked city planning director George Proakis at the March 9 meeting.
In the city’s Somerville By Design process, officials and consultants solicit opinions from residents about future development and then propose a plan based on those suggestions. But US2’s proposal underscored a need for residents to help negotiate the development of the square, rather than just city officials discussing with US2 leaders, Somerville Community Corporation worker and Union United member Karen Narefsky said at the meeting.
Union United, a community activist group, has long pushed for equal representation in creating a Community Benefits Agreement that would require US2 to meet certain housing, job and open space goals as they develop the square.
“We don’t want just community design, but community negotiation to a Community Benefits Agreement,” Narefsky said.
While the Somerville By Design charrette is ongoing, Monday evening’s meeting looked specifically at the areas where US2 proposed its first developments – the D2 block, where US2 proposed up to 525 residential units and a hotel next to the station, and the D3 block across the tracks, where they proposed up to 400 residential units and 600,000 square feet of commercial development. The plan for no commerciall but massive residential development at D2, mainly 1- and 2-bedroom units, has drawn the most criticism from residents.
“It’s important that strategic location for creating jobs and tax revenue not be used primarily for housing,” Ward 5 Alderman Mark Niedergang said at the meeting. “The most important thing is to generate economic activity.”
Proakis said the D2 site, which stretches from the Prospect Avenue bridge to Somerville Avenue, has some constraints preventing easy commercial development. The narrowness of the site is a better fit for narrower residential buildings than bulky office buildings, and any design will face restrictions from the T station, he said. In particular, the specific requirements for the station’s Ride dropoff could cause conflict with any construction next door, and complicate office design.
But that didn’t justify the complete lack of office space at D2, or the emphasis on market-rate non-family housing, residents said. One resident said office workers in the D3 block, across the tracks on Webster Avenue, would be more likely to travel to Inman Square than Union for shopping and food. Wig Zamore, co-chair of the Union Square Civic Advisory Committee, agreed.
“More housing in the center of the square won’t help businesses … we need people in the square Monday through Friday,” he said. “If the intensity of employment starts at [the D3 block], it won’t help Union Square business at all.”
Katie Gradowski, a member of Union United who co-manages Parts and Crafts on Somerville Avenue, said US2’s plan to stock housing in D2 with young workers needed a “sanity check.” Most people under 30 don’t have the income to move into market rate apartments in Somerville’s sky-high real estate market, she said, particularly not young entrepreneurs.
But the area does need affordable housing, Gradowski said. “If it were on the table that a meaningful number of apartments would be affordable, you’d get a lot less pushback,” she told Proakis.
After the meeting, Gradowski told the Journal that she wanted to see residents helping to negotiate a CBA and that such negotiations needed to happen soon – US2 is allowed to develop the D2 and D3 blocks before coming up with a master plan for the entire square. But she thought those conversations would benefit all parties.
“[US2] successfully meeting their goals and [residents] keeping this a place where we want to live are not mutually exclusive,” she said.