By: Benny Wheat, Nicole Dupre, and Greg Hill
on behalf of Union United
In anticipation of the Green Line Extension, the City of Somerville set out a plan to develop key areas around the Union Square station, and selected US2 as the master developer. US2 is lucky to have the opportunity to work in the thriving, diverse neighborhood of Union Square, and that opportunity comes with an obligation to the community of people who have made this neighborhood desirable. In order for the project to be successful and our community to be preserved, residents and businesses currently vulnerable to displacement must be able to stay in Union Square and enjoy the benefits of the development and the Green Line.
Since the development was announced, many businesses in Union Square have closed due to rent increases, from a Brazilian butcher shop to a Haitian health food store. US2’s office is located in the former space of a furniture store that was forced to close because of extreme rent increases. José Garcia, the owner of a successful sushi restaurant located on one of the disposition parcels, is worried that he will be displaced. He wants to know that he will be able to relocate to an affordable space within the new development so he can continue to run his business.
Many renters have also been displaced because of speculation, and some homeowners who live near the development, like Mary White, are struggling with the tax burden caused by increasing property values. A retiree, Mary took a job as a crossing guard in order to afford her expenses and relieve the stress of housing insecurity after she suffered a heart attack. She and her neighbors are now receiving letters from real estate speculators offering to pay cash for their homes, but Mary wants to stay in the neighborhood where she has lived her whole life.
José and Mary are two of the over 100 residents and 35 local businesses, congregations, unions, and community organizations who are members of Union United, a broad-based, democratic coalition of stakeholders in Union Square. We believe that we can have development without displacement if the community plays a decision-making role in the process through a community benefits agreement (CBA). A CBA is a legal contract between a community coalition and a developer in which the developer agrees to provide certain benefits in exchange for support from community members.
There are over 50 CBAs in effect across the country, and we have extensively researched those CBAs in order to understand what makes one successful. Union United has drafted a CBA that would ensure affordable housing, good jobs, workers’ rights, local business protections, green space, a community center, public safety, and public participation as part of the Union Square redevelopment. These are all goals that SomerVision and US2’s proposal already support; our intention is to put them into practice.
Community benefits are part of a win-win development strategy, allowing for meaningful communication between developers and community coalitions to generate public support for projects, problem-solve creatively to meet needs on both sides, and avoid permitting delays. CBAs show mutual good faith because they put agreements into writing rather than relying on an assumption of shared values. Documentation creates more public trust, allows projects to be honestly assessed, and ensures that stated goals are met. A CBA would allow US2 to leverage their partnership with the Union Square community into a valuable asset.
A community benefits agreement is not the same as the public benefits package that the City has initiated. A CBA is negotiated and implemented by a community coalition, whereas a public benefits package can only be negotiated and implemented by the City. The community has the ability to ask for important benefits, like affordable housing beyond what’s required by zoning, that the City may be legally unable to request. The City has hired a consultant, LOCUS, to lead the public benefits process along with the mayor-appointed Civic Advisory Committee (CAC). Although the CAC includes some members of Union United, it does not have the legal standing required to negotiate and ensure implementation of the public benefits agreement. Additionally, LOCUS has not yet provided details on how their process will work, and US2 has not specified the role they will play. There is nothing that prevents US2 from committing to both the public benefits process and a community benefits agreement, which can be complementary. Over half of the aldermen have publicly stated support for Union United negotiating a CBA with US2.
Union United members have taken every opportunity to participate in the public process, including CAC meetings and Somerville By Design workshops, and we will continue to do so. We hope to work collaboratively with US2 and heard initial promises that their “development team will work in partnership with the Union Square Community;” however, US2’s community engagement has been more about show than substance. US2 sponsored “100 Days of Engagement” last summer, but they have not yet held the “community recap of its findings” specified in the master developer designation agreement. Additionally, US2 released a plan for a highly residential development on the D2 parcel that did not reflect community priorities shared in the Somerville By Design meetings. US2 indicated that they were adjusting their plans after public outcry and a resolution from the Board of Aldermen, but the recently revised master developer designation agreement allows US2 to develop D2 as 80% residential.
For this development to be truly successful, we must move away from a model that allows the community to express an opinion but not to have a seat at the decision-making table. If the community is an equal partner in negotiating and ensuring the agreed-upon benefits, there will be mutual understanding and support rather than a potentially damaging and costly adversarial approach. The presence of the Green Line will add value to US2’s development, but imagine the value that would be added by a community, along with local and state officials, that publicly supports US2. If US2 agrees to good-faith negotiations with Union United through a CBA, we can together create a model of development without displacement for the entire Green Line corridor, and enhance US2’s reputation for community partnership nationwide.