In February, the City of Somerville’s plans for the redevelopment of Union Square took a hard turn in the wrong direction. The city’s master developer, US2, announced plans for the development of D2, a former metal scrap yard and future gateway into Union Square next to the planned Union Square Green Line station. US2’s plan calls for 525 units of housing for millennials in a first phase of development on this strategic block, which is among Union Square’s most important and commercially viable locations, while remaining silent on their intentions for other parcels in the Union Square Revitalization Area.
With the rush to push forward this development on the D2 block in anticipation of the Green Line, expediency is being exchanged for planning. This piecemeal approach prioritizes US2’s short-term profits while failing to safeguard the community’s larger and longer-term goals for Union Square.
This is exactly the outcome we as a community set out to avoid. In fact, the rationale for hiring a master developer in the first place was to protect against “an unfettered market that cannot ensure the realization of the community’s goals.” This fear, articulated by Mayor Curtatone, appears to be coming true.
Over many years, the city and community members have worked together to create a long-term comprehensive plan called SomerVision. The development plans unfolding in Union Square stand in contrast to this vision. Over the past year, residents, business owners, and community organizations have enthusiastically responded to the call for additional public input to guide the redevelopment of Union Square. We have spent countless hours in dozens of meetings and through our respective organizations. We have repeatedly highlighted the importance of attracting and maintaining businesses and good jobs, increasing Somerville’s commercial tax base, creating housing options for residents and families of all socioeconomic levels, developing new open and green space, and fostering a more walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented commercial center.
We believed this input would be synthesized and incorporated into all aspects of Union Square’s development. But US2’s initial plans for the D2 block show a lack of accountability for the community’s goals.
Change in the redevelopment process is urgently needed. Before plans for D2 move forward, we call upon the city and US2 to carry out Union Square’s long-term goals. Specifically:
- We ask the city to complete the community-driven Neighborhood Plan for all of Union Square and Boynton Yards.
- As required in the city’s master developer Request for Qualifications, we call upon US2 to complete an implementation plan for the seven disposition blocks in the Revitalization Area—detailing the mix of uses, site plans, phasing and schedule, and finances.
- We ask that the city and the Union Square CAC, a city-appointed community advisory committee, articulate a timely and transparent process for developing an accountable and enforceable community benefits agreement as part of the neighborhood planning process.
The 3-day design ‘charrette’ recently held in Union Square demonstrated how important it is that plans for Union Square’s most important location not be accelerated before an overall Neighborhood Plan with broad community support has been created. We won’t know what is right here until knowing how it fits into an overall vision for Union Square.
Many exciting and interesting ideas came out of the charrette, but those who attended the wrap-up event were left wondering how their goals and concerns were incorporated in the abstract building massing studies that were presented. This was an important start, but needs to result in an implementable plan that is accountable to the community’s long-term goals providing the framework to guide development. It is critical that adequate time and resources be provided to accomplish this.
The Green Line will soon arrive in Union Square because Mayor Curtatone, elected officials, the city, and the community had a long-term vision and worked hard to achieve it. With its impending arrival, we call upon the Mayor, the City of Somerville, and the Redevelopment Authority to show the same persistence and perseverance to ensure the achievement of Union Square’s long-term goals.
What is built on D2 will be among the most impactful developments in Somerville’s history, and will shape Union Square for the next century. This is an opportunity for Somerville to lead by cultivating a model of innovative, diverse and sustainable 21st Century urban development. The time to get this right is now. The costs of not doing so will be profound and long-lasting.