Union Square: Residents and Organizations Want A Say

Contributing Reporters on this Newscast:

Somerville, MA, May 20, 2014 – The list of possible “master developers” for the redevelopment of Union Square was officially whittled down from nine to four earlier this month.

The Somerville Redevelopment Authority met on May 8 and voted to accept four of the development firms or partnerships recommended by the Civic Advisory Committee (CAC) and by staff at the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD).

The “final four” are Assembly Square developer Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) and its partner National Development; The Abbey Group; Gerding Edlen; and the partners Magellan Development Group and Mesirow Financial, based in Oregon and known as “US2.”

Some of the members of the SRA – a board of five people, with one member chosen by the governor and four by the mayor – wanted to approve only the top three recommendations.

“The three are okay, the fourth one is a question mark,” board member Iwona Bonney said about US2.

But Edward C. O’Donnell, head of economic development for the OSPCD, told the board that his office wanted to include US2 in the list of finalists because “there was a very deep pool of ability and talent there.”

After calling for a vote once and failing to get takers, board chair Nancy Busnach and O’Donnell encouraged SRA members to vote for all four developers. The vote was unanimous.

Ultimately the final choice of which of the four will oversee the redevelopment of the 12 acres that may eventually be home to five-story buildings, lies with the SRA and City Hall. But the CAC still has a role to play, according to chair Wig Zamore, who spoke with Somerville Neighborhood News.

“Our two proscribed roles were to get a short list from the original list of nine master developer candidates and also later, and in a much longer process, to host a community charette with the chosen master developer and the full Somerville community,” Zamore said.

But will a CAC-sponsored charette – which is an open planning process usually characterized by meetings where people look at and comment on various designs – offer enough community input?

The answer is “no,” according to the neighbors and representatives of about a dozen community groups who joined with the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) on May 10 to launch of Union United coalition.

Van Hardy, vice president of the board of the SCC, said there is a clear difference between the CAC and the new coalition.

“The problem there is that that’s a top-down appointment. What we’re doing is grassroots-up,” he told the audience assembled in Uniun, located behind Back Bar off the square’s parking lot.

One Union United’s main objectives will be to get the eventual master developer to sign a “community benefits agreement.”

“A community benefits agreement is a contract that’s made between the community, directly, with the developers,” Hardy told the Somerville Neighborhood News. “What you try to do is get it into the master development agreement between the city and the developer so that it’s a binding contract where the developers are held accountable.”

Such an agreement might include a commitment to fill a certain percentage of jobs with local applicants; a commitment to preserve a certain amount of retail space for locally owned businesses that are already in the square, and a commitment to set aside a certain area as a public green space.

“A lot of communities around the country now are negotiating up front with the developers,” explained Hardy, a former union organizer.

“Instead of doing it at the back end, they’re doing it at the front end, and that’s just a better way of doing it. The other advantage is that it pulls the community together, and gives them a voice in the development process, rather than having to go through the city,” he added.

Union Square resident Bridget Breton attended the meeting because she wants a voice.

“I want to find out what they will be doing about housing, because costs keep on going up,” she said. “I wish they could put a stop to this. Some people do not earn enough to pay the rents that are being charged.”

Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin also came to the meeting.

“This is not my ward,” McLaughlin noted, “but I am interested in seeing local jobs and affordability for people in the square.”

The new alderman said he was disappointed that he and the rest of the board do not have decision-making power in the redevelopment process.

“The previous Board of Aldermen voted away our authority in favor of letting the Redevelopment Authority decide,” he said.

For more information, and to see a five-minute interview with Zamore, watch the segment.

Note: Somerville Community Access TV is a member of Union United. However, SNN editorial decisions are made separately from the station’s administration.