Friday, June 14, 2024

Construction in Somerville’s Union Square seen March 30. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Faced with growing gentrification in Somerville and an impending MBTA green line extension, more than 100 local activist organizations formed Union United in 2014 to fight for “development without displacement.” The coalition has negotiated with developers for local jobs, affordable housing, open space and support for small businesses.

At a City Council hearing on May 25, representatives of member organizations wondered if the city has negotiated as hard as they have.

With a controversial development at an April 6 meeting of the Planning Board – in which the city approved a permit while the board was still in negotiations with US2 to address community concerns – suspicions are running high.

“In spite of appearances, planning by the Somerville administration is not for the people, nor by the people,” Michele Hansen of the Union Square Neighborhood Council said to a packed City Hall on May 25. “Let this hearing be a step toward a more inclusive and less performative development process in which a community can actually recognize their input and the final products of development.”

A petition by the Union Square Neighborhood Council to increase transparency and community involvement in development got more than 130 signatures and led to the two-and-a-half-hour hearing before the council. Members of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, the Gilman Square Neighborhood Association, Brickbottom Artists Building, the Community Action Agency of Somerville, Somerville Stands Together and District 35 of the Painters and Allied Trades presented the case for more community-driven, transparent development.

There was no city representative on hand to respond directly. Voice mails inquiring about the Planning Board meeting were left a week ago with Somerville’s director of economic development, Thomas Galligani, and calls were made to director of planning and zoning Sarah Lewis. Neither responded.

Starting to scale

Union Square is undergoing unprecedented development under the direction of master developer US2. Community members and activists such as the Union Square Neighborhood Council have taken aim at US2 for missing hiring targets, failing to sufficiently engage the community in planning and working against green initiatives.

Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive Stephen Mackey has disagreed with criticism against US2 and the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency over the project, citing its affordable housing, eco-conscious engineering and proximity to public transit.

“US2 is in the arena and trying to get things done. There’s a genuine commitment to the community and neighborhood. This city was impoverished for generations because it did not have any kind of urban skyline,” Mackey said. “We had one-story buildings that were for vehicles, warehouses and distribution centers – you get the picture. Now we’re starting to scale and generate some tax money so that the kid who goes to Somerville high school – in a brand new $300 million building – can get a decent education.

“Years of visioning”

During the May 25 meeting, attendees mostly took aim at the city. Multiple speakers characterized community engagement efforts as “performative” and demanded their input be considered. Artists at the Brickbottom building had the most recent major brush with developers as plans were approved for lab space at 200 McGrath Highway under conditions they called suspicious.

Alyson Schultz, a painter, recalled participating “in years of visioning for our district” that included plans in 2010, 2014 and 2020 all “proposing a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood that is walkable and connected, offers multiple types of open spaces and serves as a destination for both artists and art lovers.”

“If this vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood was actually being created by all these meetings, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Schultz said. “The five development projects surrounding us are all slated to be biolabs.”

Schultz and other Brickbottom tenants have attended community meetings to express concern about the project’s size, which they say overshadows the neighborhood and will increase pollution.

Looking to Somervision 2040

Major development projects such as 200 McGrath fall under the scope of Somervision 2040, the city’s comprehensive development plan. David Gibbs, of the Community Action Agency of Somerville, said the latest decennial document lacks mechanisms and guidelines to protect the city’s most vulnerable populations.

“There was no systemic analysis of how recommended changes would be paid for, or how these changes would impact the most needy,” Gibbs said. “No group was charged with assessing the fiscal impacts of their recommendations. And no attention was given in Somervision 2040 to how we pay for what we want, how we will make the tough choices if we can’t, and who will bear the brunt of these choices.”

“We ended up with a document that gives license to the planning staff to do as they wish rather than the guidance to do what we need,” Gibbs said. “And they have used that license to develop plans that undermine the jobs, open space and affordable-housing goals that we laid out.”

Development out of order

A rider enters the Union Square T stop, completed ahead of expected housing for low- and moderate-income residents. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Somervision 2040 recommends that 20 percent of housing stock be made permanently affordable by that year. But US2 has yet to break ground on a parcel on Webster Avenue on which it promised 38 housing units for low- and moderate-income residents, including families. The project was supposed to be done before the MBTA green line extension opened.

Somerville resident Mary-Lauran Hendrix circulated a petition urging the city to move forward on the development and met with US2 president Greg Karczewski, who said he shares the desire to get the parcel built.

“City planners have been tossing the blame back and forth like the biggest hot potato,” said Bill Cavellini, of the Union Square Neighborhood Council. “When we started negotiations with the community benefits agreement, we got them to at least acknowledge the gentrification and displacement impact that we know our 15-acre development is going to have on the most vulnerable population. Developers agreed on specifics around assisting that vulnerable population. One is to build affordable housing before the worst impact comes.”

Cavellini said he suspects the delays are due to outstanding zoning revisions, which would require a public hearing, and because US2 doesn’t want to face the neighborhood again.

The city is now years behind schedule on its housing. “We had all this time,” city councilor Jesse Clingan said. “We could have had community-led, community-driven development that benefited all of us with a train station coming in the rear. Instead, we’re now behind the train station.”