SOMERVILLE –As the revitalization of historic Union Square is undertaken through the redevelopment of seven key parcels in and around the square, the City of Somerville is also aiming to develop an innovative new model for public benefits agreements that address social equity through affordable housing and jobs, open space, infrastructure, sustainability and more. This is being facilitated through collaboration with LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors. LOCUS, a program of Smart Growth America, is a nationally renowned advocacy and research organization dedicated to building successful mixed-income, walkable urban communities. This is work will be done in collaboration with the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University (GWU). The collaboration is generously supported by a grant from the Barr Foundation.
Working with the Union Square Civic Advisory Committee (CAC), the 25-member committee representing a diverse-cross section of the community formed in January 2014 to oversee the implementation of the Union Square Revitalization Plan, LOCUS will facilitate the CAC’s development of a strategic plan for Union Square’s future economic development and social equity. The strategic plan developed through this process will lead to the creation of a comprehensive inventory and prioritization of public benefits needs and opportunities that could be used in the formation of specific public benefit agreements with private development interests active in the Union Square area that will provide much of the financial wherewithal for the strategy. LOCUS will also help the CAC explore the concept of a place-management organization that could represent all parties in the Union Square neighborhood and help facilitate the community’s overall development agenda for the area.
“As we restore Union Square to its historic status as Somerville’ commercial center, we must manage the public benefits process in a way that accurately reflects both economic projections and the impacts on the community, and requires everyone who has a stake in this project—from residents and business owners, to local organizations and developers—to own the work,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. “Somerville as a community always seeks to create new pathways for public engagement, ensuring everyone has a voice. Through this process, we will be able to create the most inclusive way to create a benefits agreement between a community of 78,000 and a developer, while setting a standard for future large-scale developments in the city.”
“Market demand for great walkable neighborhoods such as Union Square is at an all-time high, after decades of disinvestment, creating economic opportunities while making it more difficulty to maintain traditional levels of affordability, said LOCUS President Chris Leinberger. “Now more than ever, the public sector, local citizen groups and the private sector have to come together and in cooperation, forge a new path in how we fundamentally address the strategic needs of great walkable places like Somerville. LOCUS is pleased to partner with Mayor Curtatone, the City of Somerville, the CAC and other community members and business groups to meet this new challenge.”
The goal of this process is to create a set of policy expectations and public benefits standards for both the community and potential Union Square developers, including Union Square Station Associates (US2), the master developer partner chosen by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority in June 2014 for the seven redevelopment parcels identified in the Union Square Revitalization Plan.
The process will include LOCUS managing two full-day sessions with the CAC in September and October for development of the strategic plan, along with the CAC’s continuing work. As with all CAC work so far, these sessions and meetings will remain open to the public, with opportunity for input from anyone interested in participating. A ‘background briefing’ will be assembled in advance of the first strategy session, pulling together all work completed to date regarding the past, current and proposed issues of Union Square, pulling from SomerVision, Somerville by Design, CAC meetings, and Union Square infrastructure planning meetings among other community-based efforts. Follow-up sessions guided by LOCUS will report on implementation of the strategic plan and next steps to ensure its continued implementation.
The process also includes a projection of economic value, fiscal revenues for the City and schools, and real estate valuation resulting from the strategy’s implementation over the next 3-5 years, with the base data for these projections provided in The WalkUP Wake-Up Call Boston, a report co-authored by LOCUS/GWU and Northeastern University that studied Greater Boston’s real estate economics and the resulting impact on social equity, defined as affordable housing, increased opportunity and accessibility. These projections based on the WalkUP research would incorporate the economic impact analysis completed as part of the Somerville by Design neighborhood planning process, and are needed to create a public benefits agreement that accurately matches the value created through Union Square’s redevelopment.
In undertaking this work for Union Square, the City hopes that the framework may also be applicable to other areas identified for transformative redevelopment in SomerVision, the 20-year comprehensive plan created after an intensive two-year community process. The framework would provide prospective developers a set of public benefits standards that they would have to factor into their economic analysis and that the public could reasonably expect such developments to deliver.
LOCUS work is funded by a grant from The Barr Foundation, as an extension of its commitments related to climate change, and support of efforts to make this region become the most livable, sustainable and resilient in the nation. That grant is supporting LOCUS work in Somerville and in other Massachusetts cities and towns.