Union Uneasy: Community Members Anxious over Development

union unitedPhoto courtesy of Somerville Community Corporation

Bukhari Brown is only 17 years old, but he already knows what it’s like to be displaced from Somerville. He was born and raised here, for the most part, but spent a couple years of his short life in Everett because his family could not afford to live in the city.

“I have plenty of stories. Friends, and even me, are driven out of Somerville,” he says. Brown is one of the youngest members of Union United, a coalition of community members trying to make themselves heard during the Union Square development process. He found his way there through a number of other volunteer schticks—Somerville Community Corporation and Groundwork Somerville, among others. But there’s something special about Union United for Brown. There’s something about the work that he finds important, personal, relevant.

“A lot of other students at Somerville High moved to Everett and Dorchester, many other local places, but still come to Somerville High because they found a lot more satisfaction being in this school system,” he says. “It shows that there is a lot that Somerville does better than other cities around us.”

Brown is not alone in his love for Somerville. This city is marked by almost uncanny citizen devotion, like a Pleasantville full of artists and immigrants. But word has spread that this is One Great City, and the ball called gentrification is on a roll. If that alone hadn’t gotten residents (of both the Old and New Somervilles) nervous, the potential market pressures of the Green Line Extension have certainly put many on edge.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is raise awareness about how deep the insecurity is,” says Karen Narefsky, a community organizer at the Somerville Community Corporation. She says she recently received a phone call from a member of Union United who lives on Somerville Avenue and who said his landlady was about to raise his rent by $400 in the span of a month.

“It seems crazy, but we really get those kinds of calls, we hear [those stories], every day,” she says.

Union United formed just over a year ago in May 2014. At that point, it was made up of about 10 residents who were part of the SCC’s land use committee, which focuses on finding solutions to things like vacant lots or food deserts. Since then, Union United has grown to include several dozen community members representing an array of local organizations, including the local public workers union, the Somerville Homeless Coalition and SCATV. They’ve spent the past several months identifying seven key areas that they believe should be at the center of the redevelopment conversation, among them affordable housing, local jobs and workers’ rights.

“When we say we want a holistic and a livable community, we mean having a good job, having accessible transportation, having affordable housing,” says Mashael Majid, a community planner with SCC. (Majid has since announced that she will be leaving Somerville to live closer to her family in California.)

Over the past several months, Majid says that the group kept encountering something called a community benefits agreement, or CBA. A CBA is a contract between community members and one or more developers that binds the latter to a number of amenities—jobs, affordable housing, green space—that alleviate some of the pressures put on communities undergoing development. It can ensure that a community reaps more than the bare minimum of the large amount of profit generated by these kinds of projects.

“We need a return on investment for our community, we need those jobs, we need people to build affordable housing so families can stay here and their kids can stay in the school system,” says Majid. ”I think the community benefits model offers a way for multiple entities to gain from the profit of redevelopment, which is not something that’s typically done.”

union united

Elegant Furniture, which had occupied the space at 31 Union Sq. for two decades, closed late last year after it experienced a drastic rent increase. Area developer Union Square Station Associates has announced that the workspace-sharing company Workbar will fill the space. Photo by Emily Hopkins.


Last summer, just after Union United formed, Union Square Station Associates (US2) was selected by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority as the master developer of about 15 acres of land related to the planned Green Line station. They’ve had a busy year as well, one spent looking at plans and parcels and starting to sketch the future of the area.

“It’s been exciting, because there are so many folks who are very passionate about their neighborhood and very passionate about the future of their neighborhood,” says Greg Karczewski, president of US2. “Usually when you put those different energies in the process, you end up with a better result than if you have just one perspective driving the process.”

US2 has already felt the heat from community members and changed course in at least one instance: the development of D2. According to Karczewski, US2 wanted the D2 parcel, a large area that is right next to where the Green Line station would be, to be operable at the time the station opened in early 2018. Union United, as well as the Board of Aldermen, pushed back against the fast-track development of this site, which would have contained hundreds of residential units and no commercial space. US2 was forced to recalibrate.

Karczewski says that US2 is committed to community benefits. He notes that they are typically part of the development contract between the developer and city, meaning negotiations are relegated to municipal government, not grassroots organizations. US2 has held a number of community engagement events, including weekly lunches, in an attempt to demonstrate their interest in community involvement. But despite their best efforts, they haven’t been able to reassure everyone that the Green Line expansion wouldn’t mean unmitigated displacement.

“There is a real palpable fear and anxiety that many people feel generally about the transformation of Union Square,” says Majid, “but especially those who are most vulnerable to displacement.” That means largely immigrants, the elderly and the working class, folks who are responsible for building the square so many have fallen in love with.

Despite that anxiety, there’s a note of optimism in Majid’s voice as she describes the engagement she has seen from US2, noting that the real estate group seems legitimately interested in community input. Members of Union United have met with US2 three times, and the groups are attempting to set up more regular meetings. They still haven’t gotten to the point where they could discuss their CBA draft.

“It shouldn’t just stop at community participation, it really is about community control over development … in a really meaningful way,” says Majid. “The market is so unregulated, so you will get a notice 15 days or a month before that your rent is going up by a substantial amount. It just adds to this psychological trauma that you’re dealing with on multiple levels.”