A Vote for Union Square

On October 11, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

The October 9th vote by our Board of Aldermen to approve the Union Square Revitalization Plan was both historic and courageous. We can now move ahead quickly to submit the plan for state approval, which means we can maintain momentum toward the goal of a Green Line station at Union Square by (according to our July agreement with MassDOT and the MBTA) “late 2016-early 2017.” It means that the City now has the tools to shape development in Union Square to reflect the goals and principles laid out in our citywide Comprehensive Plan: new business opportunities, new jobs, and new housing all supported by transit-oriented development strategies.

Make no mistake about it: this is the kind of bold action that has helped our city to move ahead on Assembly Square, that has helped our real estate market weather the recession more effectively than most communities in Massachusetts, that has helped us achieve the best bond rating in our history, that has earned us “Best Place to Live” ratings from Boston Magazine and the Boston Phoenix – and all while spending fewer local tax dollars per capita than any other city in Massachusetts.

That’s why the vote was historic. It was courageous because it represents change – and any change is going to generate at least some controversy. In this case, the concerns expressed by opponents were about whether the Green Line will really come to Union Square; whether valuable businesses will be displaced by the development process; and whether the City is at risk if it purchases development parcels in the Union Square district only to find that developers aren’t interested in partnering with the City in a smart-growth, transit-oriented development approach.

These concerns are understandable, but ultimately misplaced.

First, let’s look at the Green Line concern: Can we say with 100-percent certainty that a Green Line station will open in Union Square by late 2016 or early 2017? The answer to that question is, of course, that no such absolute guarantees exist in any aspect of life – including transit policy. But we have agreements to that effect with state officials; we have the state’s continuing legal obligation to build the Green Line, and we have the vote of the Metropolitan Planning Organization to commit transportation dollars to the full design of a Green Line Extension that runs all the way to Route 16. (The MPO is the regional body that establishes spending priorities for federal-aid funds for transit projects.)

These factors give us every confidence that the Green Line will continue on track – but only so long as Somerville continues to prepare Union Square as a Green Line destination. Indeed, our refusal to move briskly on a revitalization plan in Union Square would have sent a negative message to state transportation officials and to developers deciding whether to make major investments in the Square’s future as a center for smart-growth development.

As for the question of business displacement: this plan will roll out over the next 20 years and covers all of Union Square. The “acquisition parcels” it describes may not see changes for many years – and changes that do occur may be driven entirely by market forces that have nothing to do with the plan. In the near term, the parcels slated for acquisition by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority are largely occupied by scrap metal businesses and other uses that are completely out of character with Union Square’s long-term development trajectory. (Even those aldermen who voted against the plan last week have not expressed concern about the future of these parcels.)

So what we are left with are businesses (examples include Crossfit Gym and Ricky’s Flower Market) that may be a great fit with both present and future visions of Union Square but that occupy land designated as acquisition parcels. The City has every intention of working closely with such businesses to keep them in Union Square if and when the revitalization plan requires acquisition of their property. They will receive the full market value of their properties (including the value of any improvements they have made in the interim) and have access to relocation funds and other support.

Since both business and residential property owners in and around the Square will see the value of their real estate rise as the result of the coming of the Green Line, the construction of a new library (and possibly other civic facilities) and accelerated private development, it’s clear that there is an ample upside for the thriving businesses already based in the Square.

And, finally, we have the question of whether the City will end up paying for property that it cannot quickly resell, with financing costs that become a drag on our bonding capacity. My answer is that in Union Square, as at Assembly Square, our ability to attract and secure the right kind of development partners depends on whether we have a clear vision for the district – and whether we have the necessary tools and institutional resolve to make good on that vision. That’s exactly what we get from this plan.

Will the revitalization plan ever require alteration or amendment? That’s a distinct possibility: Circumstances are bound to change over twenty years. But our Board was still right to take action in the here and now. This vote takes its place in a record of legislative accomplishment that has firmly established that Somerville is no longer a community that merely settles for what it can get. Instead, thanks to votes like this one, Somerville has become a community that takes charge of its own future and works aggressively – and confidently – to achieve it. That’s a change we can live with, not only in Union Square but across our entire city.


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