With the long-awaited Union Square redevelopment expected to begin construction this fall, nearby residents are working to ensure that the wide-ranging project supports priorities like affordable housing, open space, and environmental sustainability.
The Union Square Neighborhood Council and developer US2 offered updates on negotiations for a Community Benefits Agreement during a meeting at the Argenziano School Wednesday night. Dozens of community members attended to ask questions and raise concerns, frequently pushing the Neighborhood Council to extract more concessions from the developer.
Bill Cavellini, a member of the council’s negotiating team, outlined five major areas where discussion is still ongoing: affordable housing, union labor, green spaces, sustainability, and neighborhood funding. He expressed optimism that a draft agreement will be complete within a month, after which Neighborhood Council members will need to approve it.
“We think it will benefit fellow residents, business owners, workers, and visitors to Union Square for decades to come,” Cavellini said.
US2 President Greg Karczewski says his team is committed to meeting the city’s goals. When completed, commercial and lab space will comprise about 60 percent of the project, generating thousands of new jobs, and the complex will include about 1,000 new residential units, 450 of which are slated for the first phase. He called this approach to development unique.
“Normally, development happens one building at a time,” Karczewski said.
Robust affordable housing has become a major community priority. Karczewski noted that 20 percent—or 200—of the project’s units will be affordable, which is in line with the city’s zoning requirement. This will include units available at various income levels, he said, and some three-bedroom units sized for families. He added that the project will pay for even more affordable housing because of the city’s linkage fee, which requires large commercial developers to pay into a housing trust fund.
Some of those affordable apartments will be among the first units available, Cavellini noted. One 51-unit building will be about 75 percent affordable, bringing housing for low- and moderate-income residents to Union Square in time for the Green Line Extension’s arrival.
Still, Cavellini and negotiator Mike Firestone say affordable housing is an active issue. Some residents were unimpressed by the share of affordable units currently offered, suggesting that the developer should exceed the 20 percent required by the city. Residents were also concerned that some renters cannot afford market-rate units but make too much money to qualify for affordable housing.
“It seems like affordable housing is the biggest concern of folks in the neighborhood,” resident Shana Berger said.
Meanwhile, the negotiators say they are pushing US2 to incorporate more green and civic spaces in their development. US2 has tentatively agreed to add a second park to the complex, Firestone noted, but the team would like an even larger footprint.
Several residents urged US2 to build a parking garage instead of a surface lot, leaving more space for parkland. Resident David Gutz argued that the current arrangement is insufficient and unacceptable.
“I think the city really deserves a substantial plaza,” Gutz said. “I think the community is being ripped off if that’s not presented to us.”
Karczewski expressed hesitation, noting that US2 has studied the parking garage proposal and concluded that it would come at a substantial cost.
“We’re willing to talk about solutions,” he said, “but it’s a significant amount of money.”
A few community members were unhappy with cost concerns, suggesting that US2 share details about its finances. Karczewski says his team has shared some of this information with the city.
The negotiators also say they would like more concessions in the name of environmental sustainability. US2 has agreed to make its buildings’ roofs solar-ready, among other climate-conscious details, but Firestone suggested improvements like expanding the amount of solar energy generation on the site and committing to a “passive house” ultra-efficient building standard.
Some residents, along with Cavellini, urged US2 to reduce the amount of on-site parking, which they say would ease traffic and reduce area air pollution. Karczewski says his team has tried to minimize parking, and would prefer as little parking as possible, but still needs enough spaces to make the project feasible.
Also, community members including Rachel Weil pressured US2 to commit to ambitious environmental goals like the “passive house” standard rather than simply studying their feasibility endlessly.
“I am concerned that we have not moved far enough on sustainability,” Weil said.
The negotiating team also focused on support for Union Square-area businesses, Somerville job-seekers, and local unions. On the jobs front, Firestone noted that US2 will fund a staff position with the city’s First Source Jobs Program, part of an effort to help a broad share of city residents access the permanent jobs the project will create. Meanwhile, Firestone says the team has opened a dialogue between US2 and area labor groups, and he would like to see broad union participation in the project’s construction.
“Maximizing organized labor participation will reflect our values as a community that believes in strong middle-class jobs, worker training, and career pathways,” Firestone said.
Negotiators emphasized that they are working toward a Community Benefits Agreement with clear commitments, which will allow residents to monitor US2’s progress after the agreement is signed.
“As we envision it, the CBA is a contract,” Firestone said. “Our goal is to have appropriate oversight and monitoring of the commitments.”
Stephen Mackey, president of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, urged the negotiating team to finish its agreement in a timely manner and noted that the impending start of Green Line service in Somerville makes development in Union Square important. The negotiators and Karczewski say they are working to reach a comprehensive agreement as soon as possible.
“We’re excited to come to an agreement that meets the community’s goals and aspirations, and ensures the best possible project,” Karczewski said.