In the early 1900s, Union Square was a vibrant community bustling with grist mills, brick manufacturing, and ink, glass, and copper tubing factories. Street cars made 88 stops each day in the area, bringing people in and out of Boston, according to the Union Square Neighborhood Plan.
The street car system eventually stopped running as more and more people began driving automobiles and bypassing the city, the neighborhood plan explains.
The transformation caused the local economy to collapse. “Union Square lost density and urban character,” the plan reads.
Parts of the workforce did return to open automotive niche businesses, and by the 1990s young people began looking to Union Square for an affordable place to live. The square has been experiencing a renaissance ever since.
The city is looking to help return the neighborhood to its former glory by transforming it into an “employment center that takes advantage of the close proximity to downtown Boston, Harvard, and MIT” through the Union Square Revitalization Project, according to the neighborhood plan.
The City of Somerville selected Union Square Station Associates (US2) as the developer for the Union Square Revitalization Project. US2 will develop over 15 acres of land, 60 percent of which will be commercial space and 40 percent of which will be residential.
The entire project will create nearly 1,000 new housing units, 20 percent of which will be affordable, according to US2. The $1 billion project is also expected to create 5,000 jobs and over $11.3 million annually in new property tax revenue.
The project is broken up into seven “D-parcels,” which make up about 2.4-million square feet of development opportunity, US2 said in an email. The parcels surround the heart of Union Square.
US2 is aiming to break ground on the D-2 parcel on the corner of Prospect Street and Somerville Avenue his fall, according to Tom Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development. The space is currently a vacant lot.
The company hopes to have the D-2 part of the project completed by 2021. The entire Union Square Revitalization will take an estimated 20 to 30 years to complete, the neighborhood plan says.
US2 will build about 175,000 square feet of commercial office, retail, and housing space on the D-2 parcel. The agreement also calls for around 400 housing units to be built in the space.
The commercial office space will include a seven-story building containing a commercial office and lab with ground floor retail and a 25-story mixed-use residential building with retail on the first floor, according to Galligani.
Galligani says the city is “looking to bring back Union Square to its former prominence as a job center.” A portion of the parcel will also be used for the Green Line Extension Project, which Galligani says is the “impetus for development” and will become integral to Union Square.
“It’s the reason why we’re able to do this [project] now,” Galligani says. “And to really encourage [and] stimulate development opportunity now.”
While many residents support the project, concerns run through the neighborhood about the impact the development will have.
Ben Ewen-Campen, who describes working as a community activist before being elected as the alderman for Ward 3 in November, says he’s particularly concerned that current residents will get displaced by the influx of new residents looking for housing.
“I think the basic premise that everyone buys into is economic development, from the perspective of a city’s bottom line, is unambiguously good,” Ewen-Campen says. “More money for the city, you can spend it on the stuff you want.”
“But I think we all know that typically the benefits from this kind of development are often not distributed equitably,” he adds. “In particular, there’s a lot of displacement, both of residents, and of small businesses, and we have certainly seen that.”
Ewen-Campen hopes that a community benefits agreement, negotiated between members of the community and the developer, could help mitigate some of the negative impacts the project could have on residents.
“If you don’t have real community involvement and buy-in on this, I think there’s going to be a lot of upset people here,” Ewen-Campen says.
Resident Van Hardy, board president of the Somerville Community Corporation, echoed hopes put forward by several residents: that the community benefits agreement will include increased affordable housing, job opportunities for residents, a job and community center, a larger percentage of open space, and a commitment to conduct studies on the impact development will have on the environment, small businesses, and families.
“We need to know who’s at risk, and set up programs that will mitigate any of the harm,” Hardy says. “So that if people are displaced they have the right of return.”
He hopes the agreement will be finalized this year—ideally by the end of the summer, before construction begins.
US2 formally agreed to negotiate with residents in its development covenant agreement with the city. Residents recently formed the Union Square Neighborhood Council to discuss terms with US2.
The 15-member council was elected in early December, according to the Somerville Journal. So far the members have “impressed the hell out of all of us,” Ewen-Campen says. The council is still developing its main negotiating priorities.
Bill Cavellini, co-chair of the 15-member council, says he thinks the project has been a “missed opportunity” for the community so far.
“You have an opportunity to address some needs that are long standing in Somerville, open space, jobs, commercial tax base, and keeping the eclectic mix that is so attractive,” Cavellini says. “It’s not easy to do, but it’s doable if the developer, particularly, and the city are willing to forgo astronomical profits.”
Prior to the formation of the neighborhood council, residents spent three years lobbying for a Community Benefits Agreement through another neighborhood group called Union United, but failed to get US2 to the negotiating table, according to Cavellini.
Cavellini points out that the city might not have another chance to address this many issues in a single project.
“If you don’t do it when you have big developments like this—as they call [them] transformational developments, like Assembly Square and Union Square—where are you going to do it?” Cavellini asks.
US2 says the company has been following the city’s process in terms of community benefits.
“US2 looks forward to negotiating a benefits agreement that will address outstanding community priorities in addition to the range of benefits already included in the development covenant and as part of the zoning ordinance,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.
Greg Karczewski, President of US2, said in a statement that the project is a “culmination of decades of careful planning by residents, stakeholders, business and the city.”
A Nexus Study examining the city’s linkage fee rate—the money that developers have to pay the city toward affordable housing—found that the impact of the commercial development in Union Square would create demand for 591 new units of housing for very-low-income, low-income, and moderate-income households. The study noted that, under the previous linkage rates, the city faced a $162.5 million financing gap to build the needed amount of affordable housing.
In December 2017 the Board of Alderman voted to increase the city’s linkage fees from $5.15 to $10 per square foot on developments over 30,000 square feet, according to the Somerville Journal, in an effort to shrink the gap.
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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