Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Union Square South Block in Somerville. (Photo: Linda Pinkow)

In the heart of Somerville’s Union Square, a 450-unit apartment building and seven-story lab building near completion, while the owner of a block of buildings just across Prospect Street held its first public meeting Wednesday to explain another lab building with a long road ahead – if any.

Stretching along Somerville Avenue from Dunkin’ Donuts to the Buk Kyung Korean Restaurant, the buildings are known as the Union Square South Block, or Parcel D-6 in the Union Square Master Plan. The official addresses are 1-9 Union Square and 282-290 Somerville Ave.

Unlike most of the Union Square redevelopment project, the parcel is not owned by Union Square Station Associates, a partnership of developers and financial firms chosen by the city in 2014 to oversee the creation of 2.7 million square feet of transit-oriented development. The owner is Union 2 Associates, which is “essentially” the family-owned Hamilton Company, builder, owner and manager of more than 6,500 multifamily apartments and about 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, said Jameson Brown, the company’s chief operating officer and co-CEO.

The question of whether Union 2 Associates needs permission from US2 to propose a plan for Parcel D-6 was one issue at what Ward 3 city councilor Ben Ewen-Campen called an “informal meeting requested by the current property owners, which I’ve agreed to facilitate” before a planning or zoning board process. About 50 residents attended online.

Community priorities not “fully realized”

The proposal by Union 2 Associates is “different in some ways from what was approved by the Planning Board” for Union Square, Ewen-Campen said.

Initial concepts set out in the Union Square Neighborhood Plan showed two commercial buildings on Parcel D-6, possibly with a walk-through space, and some publicly accessible civic space, said Tim Talun, the project architect. Talun, of Boston’s Elkus Manfredi, is also a member of Somerville’s Urban Design Commission and other committees and neighborhood groups.

Some amenities long ago identified as community priorities were not “fully realized” in old plans, such as indoor civic space, outdoor green space, pedestrian connectivity and environmental sustainability, Talun said. The developer’s answer is to build one building instead of two, shifting it away from Prospect Street and Somerville Avenue to make room for a civic plaza. The design would create a clearer path from the existing Union Square Plaza to the square’s new MBTA green line station, he said,

Enhancements promised

The four-story, 200,000-square-foot lab building would have ground-floor retail along Somerville Avenue, approximately 19,400 square feet of surrounding open space and 112 parking spaces below. A garage entrance and loading dock would be toward the south side of the building off Everett, a small residential street.

The outdoor plaza might include a skating rink, a robust tree canopy and other amenities; indoors, the developer proposes a neighboring civic space that Talun suggested could be a branch library.

It was too soon to specify architectural or design details, but Union 2 Associates was committed to creating a variety of enhancements based on feedback from the neighborhood, Talun said.

Approvals needed

The developer’s needed amendment to Union Square zoning rules would require approval from Somerville’s Planning Department and City Council Land Use Committee, a special permit for the site plan and a building permit – so it’s early in the process, Talun said.

“There’s just quite a bit about this that I just don’t understand, despite having spoken to your team a few times,” said Ewen-Campen, a member of the Somerville Redevelopment Authority, which he noted was “the body that actually made the decisions around Union Square revitalization.”

The councilor’s main question: whether US2 would need to okay Union 2 Associates’ revised plan. Ewen-Campen thinks sign-offs from US2 and the Redevelopment Authority would be needed. “Before we get into any of the specifics of what you’re proposing,” he said, “it’s in my interest that we’re not wasting my constituents’ time with a project that has no realistic path forward.”

Big question looms

Brown replied that he did not think his company needed US2’s approval.

“We’re the owner of the property and eminent domain has not been initiated, has not happened, our rights have not been taken,” Brown said. “Regarding US2, we have had discussions with them over a number of years and they just haven’t really gone anywhere, to be honest. You know, I don’t know how much I want to divulge about it, but they just weren’t fruitful discussions.”

Ewen-Campen emphasized that Union 2 Associates should confer with the city’s planning staff about US2’s involvement.

“I have no interest in [the proposal if] there is not a path forward for this without it getting mired in lawsuits for a million years,” Ewen-Campen said.

Public comment

Reaction to the plans from the public was mixed. Some said “no more lab space,” while others said they prefer the proposal to luxury condos. Many asked specific questions about architectural, traffic or other details that would not be determined until the city signed off on the basics of the new plan.

“Your assurances that you’re going to take care of things are a little bit problematic, because you’re not taking care of the properties now. There are incredible amounts of rats on your properties. There are trees that have never been trimmed on your properties, running along Everett,” said Michael Katz of Emerson Street, a small side street just south of the D-6 parcel.

Katz wondered about traffic and loading disruptions to Everett, “a tiny little street,” and whether it would be widened or lose residential on-street parking. “I would like to hear from you about how you plan on doing all this without completely destroying the small neighborhood that is right behind those buildings,” he told the presenters.

Jameson promised managers would look at the conditions Katz complained of; Talun told him that the configuration of Everett Street hadn’t been looked at closely, but it “may need to be widened.”

version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville News Wire.