Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Residents rally at the Homans site on Somerville’s Gilman Square on Nov. 15. (Photo: Emily Pauls)

Gilman Square residents rallied and marched to City Hall on Nov. 15 with demands for long-delayed action on the blank space in their neighborhood known as the Homans site, but city planners told them that the Economic Development Division would be “taking a pause” on development there.

Members of a team responding to the shutdown of the Winter Hill elementary school for safety issues will make a final decision on whether the Homans site “will be needed for a longer-term response,” Economic Development planner Benjamin Demers said.

“In that time, we are aiming to complete that disposition study of city-owned land to better understand the priority for … disposing of the site,” Demers said.

Director of Economic Development Rachel Nadkarni said she estimates the study to be completed in eight months to a year. Staffing issues are contributing to delays, she said.

The residents say they’ve waited for nearly a decade already. Development in the area has been in discussion since at least 2014 when a “Gilman Square Station Area Plan” was released.

When a T passenger exits the green line at the Gilman Square stop and look out onto Somerville, what they see is a large empty plot of land – the Homans site.

It was here that the Gilman Square Neighborhood Council and its supporters rallied and marched to a meeting at City Hall on Nov. 15 to demand that the city release a request for proposal that will bring in bids to work on the site.

“What do we want? An RFP! When do we want it? Now!” could be heard chanted as marchers made their way to the Housing and Community Development Committee meeting.

“Moving of the goalposts”

The Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development was scheduled to discuss the neighborhood development plans in the Gilman Square area at the meeting by order of the City Council.

It wasn’t the first time residents have gotten involved in Gilman Square development discussions. Around 2017, the neighborhood council had a “partnership” with the city for improving the square, said Christine Carlino, board president of the council. Efforts halted in 2020, which Carlino attributed to change of administration and staff turnover.

Carlino spoke to the committee and planners Nov. 15 on behalf of the neighborhood council, Gilman Square residents and businesses the council represents.

“This new land disposition is just yet another moving of the goalposts,” Carlino said. “We’ve been talking about this for over a year now, and it still hasn’t even started, which I just think is unacceptable.”

Revenue is a driver

While the city has made progress with development, she said, it’s been in “select areas of the city only,” and big developers are leading – not the community.

“We’re seeing decisions being made by the city on how to maximize profit for developers at the cost of the community, as opposed to what we say we want, which is a well-rounded, sustainable, livable city for the community to live, work and play,” Carlino said.

If revenue generation on the Homans site “is the stick we’re being measured against to get on the priority list, but the city does not invest any money and resources into development that will increase the tax base, Gilman Square will never be a priority. We’ll stagnate and be forgotten,” She said.

Carlino added that residents are already feeling the impact. The schools are “crumbling to the ground” and the streets are dangerous for pedestrians, bicyclists and cars.

“We live our daily lives with a dirt pit next to a train station that the city has deemed is only valuable for lay-down area, parking or snow storage. All of these are in violation of the MBTA Communities Act,” Carlino said.

Housing and retail

If developed, the Homans Site alone could have 150 units of housing, some of which would be affordable, and a dozen ground-floor retail locations, she said.

In her statement to the committee and planners, Carlino called for Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and the OSPCD to be the “changing agents” that are needed for the implementation of a progressive agenda of the city.

“We demand that an RFP be written immediately with the input provided by the community already,” Carlino said. “Stop promising progress only to pull the rug out from us months later, stop earmarking money for Gilman Square only to redirect that money to other neighborhoods. Let’s finally release the potential of the Homans Site.”

Frustrated councilors

Ward 7 city councilor Judy Pineda Neufeld and Ward 4 councilor Jesse Clingan – it was his order for planners to speak about the Homans site at the committee meeting – expressed frustration.

Waiting for a study to be completed before taking action will only further delay progress, Pineda Neufeld said. 

“The frustration I’m sitting with is there’s clearly articulated desires for the site,” Pineda Neufad said. “I heard housing, commercial spaces, green spaces and an accessible T station. That’s been communicated in the plan already, so it’s not like we’re sitting around wondering what the community wants. We know what the community wants.”