MLDA vote postponed as Somerville residents voice concerns

This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal. 

The aldermen’s chambers at Somerville City Hall were packed Tuesday night as an estimated 50 people shared their concerns with the most recent proposed zoning plan for Union Square. The end result: A postponed vote.

At the public hearing on March 7, residents asked the Board of Aldermen to hold off on passing the zoning amendments until receiving a written and binding commitment from master developer Union Square Stations Associates (US2) to honor a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

Top priorities of the CBA include affordable housing and homeless prevention; community resources, arts and culture; good jobs and local hiring; green and open space and climate change mitigation; support for small, local businesses; participatory planning; and public safety and accessibility.

George Proakis, director of planning for the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, said the majority of future conversations regarding the a community benefits ordinance and agreement should be established between the Union Square Neighborhood Council and the developer.

Some benefits, he added, are included in current zoning, such as the percentage of open space and affordable housing.

“We use the zoning to do (open space and housing),” said Proakis. “It’s the best, most enforceable way to achieve those goals. Promoting local businesses and addressing community needs…those aren’t addressed in zoning but they should be addressed in a CBA.”

Karen Narefsky, community organizer for the Somerville Community Corp., said the neighborhood group Union United sent a letter to US2 at the beginning of February requesting a time to meet and discuss the CBA.

This month the developer responded, stating it would follow the “inclusive community benefits process” that the city has laid out, said Narefsky in an email. The problem is, she continued, no such process has been finalized.

She and other community members hope the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) will suggest adding specific language including a CBA in the Master Land Disposition Agreement (MLDA), which it will vote on at the end of April.

The aldermen’s vote was originally scheduled for this week, but after taking public comments, the board decided to postpone the vote and discuss the document further.

Currently the MLDA outlines responsibilities for US2, but doesn’t include a CBA or, what residents consider, appropriate construction time frames. As it stands, US2 must build 11 percent of commercial development two years after Green Line construction begins, while 50 percent of residential development can be built first.

‘Development without displacement’

Almost every community member who stood up to speak at the public hearings asked for two things: more commercial development and a delayed vote on both zoning and the MLDA until US2 commits to a community discussion regarding the CBA.

SRA board member Bill Gage said one thing lacking in the zoning proposal is commercial development.

“For every 100,000 square feet of residential space…the developer should be developing 200,000 square feet of commercial space,” said Gage at the hearing. “We need jobs.”

At a public SRA hearing on March 8, Alderman Mary Jo Rossetti said community members are looking for more inclusive and direct language that say developers will agree to negotiate development in good faith.

“They aren’t looking for finalization of the CBA,” she said. “They’re just looking for language so (the SRA) can vote in favor of this legally binding document that is giving them the comfort (that) they are welcome at the table and in the discussion.”

Jefferson Thomas Scott, who recently announced a campaign for Ward 2 Alderman, said the MLDA, as it stands, could have “destructive consequences” for the community.

“It would be very simple for (the SRA) to sit there and say, ’The CBA is not my issue, zoning is not my issue,’” he said. “These things are your issue, are your responsibility…(You’re responsible) to negotiate and sign a fiscally responsible agreement that will result in nondestructive (development).”

State Rep. Mike Connolly stood in support of Union United and called for an inclusive CBA.

All over the state, he said at the March 7 meeting, people are seeing tremendous development, but with that comes displacement, especially of the middle class.

“What impresses me about what’s before us is the opportunity to move forward in a new direction with an inclusive CBA,” said Connolly. “It has been proven in other places to be a very promising way to ensure we can achieve development without displacement.”

Former Alderman Courtney O’Keefe said though she supports the community process and the CBA, she hopes for more inclusiveness during the planning. Currently, she said she feels uncomfortable with one organization leading the cause.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with forcing the hand of the developer with the expectations of a CBA,” she said. Telling the developer it can’t get necessary zoning without agreeing to a CBA, she continued, may not be the best way to ensure an agreement.

A potential missed opportunity

Some community members at the meeting felt differently — some said if the board didn’t approve zoning changes soon, developers would seek locations elsewhere, jeopardizing the chance for strong commercial development.

Rod Laurenz, chairman of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, said at the March 7 hearing that the proposed zoning needs to be passed in order to create a commercial center and destination. Businesses would love to come to Somerville, he continued, but they can’t because of current zoning restrictions.

“The opportunity is passing us by right now,” said Laurenz. “Everyone would love infinite green space and parking, but we’ve got a workable plan here … We encourage the Board of Aldermen to efficiently pass zoning … so we can join the revolution that’s happening right now.”

NU Cafe and Juice Bar owner Joshua Van Dyke and his wife also spoke in favor of potential zoning changes.

The couple recently opened their cafe in December 2016 and own the retail space next door. Though the promise of development lingers, renters are hesitant.

“People we’ve shown the space to are having a hard time committing because of redevelopment,” said Van Dyke. “It’s very hard to keep up with the bills. We’re in support of zoning changes.”

The SRA will accept written comments on the MLDA until April 14 and will vote on the document on April 27.

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