This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.
Earlier this month, Union Square master developer Union Square Station Associates (US2) signed an agreement with the City of Somerville to contribute an estimated $112 million to the city.
The contributions include funds for the Green Line Extension, infrastructure upgrades, new open space, and an agreement to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with community members via the Union Neighborhood Council.
Though community group Union United considers this a step in the right direction, they are pushing for more.
On Thursday, April 20, the group hosted a press conference outside the US2 offices at 31 Union Square, urging the developer to hold a formal meeting with the community and negotiate a CBA in good faith.
For three years Union United has fought for a transparent development process, affordable housing, local business, local jobs, and more. Though they have repeatedly asked to meet with the developer, with the most recent request made in February, they have so far been denied.
Candidate for Ward 2 alderman JT Scott said the lack of transparency in the process is concerning and said current plans are in no way responsible. Every time the community provides feedback and comments on changes, he explained, it is disregarded and they are presented with yet another plan lacking community input.
“The city’s privately-negotiated agreements fall short of assuring timely commercial development,” he said at Thursday’s rally. “I call on the mayor to cease pushing relentlessly for a plan that doesn’t leave room for [the community] to negotiate, while there is room for us to negotiate.”
Long-time resident Ann Camara echoed Scott’s sentiments, explaining that she wants a CBA but feels as if she can’t find a voice — as if her voice doesn’t matter.
“I care what happens in Union Square and all of Somerville, we all do, but sometimes we don’t feel like we have a voice,” she said.
Frustrated, the group asked the Board of Aldermen in March to delay their vote on zoning changes in Union Square until a CBA is finalized. They also urged the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) to postpone their vote on the Master Land Disposition Agreement (MLDA), a transaction of property and commitment between US2 and the city. The SRA is scheduled to vote April 27.
While community members agree that development can be positive for the city, they say they are sick of high rates of displacement.
Often, immigrants are the first to leave, said resident Jeff Warren, pointing to the immigrant-owned furniture store that used to occupy the US2 offices.
“We’re proud that Somerville is a sanctuary city, but if immigrants cannot afford to live and work here, we are not providing support to those most vulnerable,” Warren said.
State Rep. Mike Connolly echoed the sentiment that, although development is positive, the displacement of local businesses and long-time residents is concerning.
“We’ve seen this kind of development in Boston, we’ve seen this kind of development in Cambridge, and the outcome is that long-time residents, particularly renters, get pushed out of the community,” he explained.
The community deserves “a seat at the table,” he continued, adding that US2 needs to be more transparent moving forward.
State Rep. Denise Provost said she remembers when Somerville was a place people went when they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else in Greater Boston. But now, she said, it’s a place people want to visit, live, and raise a family.
“All of our space here is precious. All of our dwelling units are precious,” she said. “There are not enough of them, not enough that are affordable … we have become a place where everybody wants to be, but hardly anybody can afford to be.”
The city needs to ensure people are able to stay here, said Provost, and the situation in Union Square is a chance for the community to “draw a line” and set a precedent for future development.
“[This process] doesn’t feel fair, it doesn’t feel inclusive,” she said. “It’s not transparent.”
Candidate for Ward 3 alderman Ben Ewen-Campen said that while the remaining issues in the city, like affordable housing, can’t be solved overnight, better outcomes can be created through the process in Union Square.
“We need new housing, we need new commercial development to offset property taxes,” he said. “We need new good jobs, union jobs, infrastructure, green space. But we don’t need it at the expense of people who live here.”