The redevelopment of Union Square represents a unique opportunity for Somerville. As the owner of commercial property (the former Union Square police station) since 1989, an architect and planner, an emeritus board member of Union Square Main Streets, and a member of the steering committee which helped write SomerVision, I can offer an informed view about the importance of moving the redevelopment process forward without further delays and the benefit that housing as an early piece of a mixed use development will bring to the city and neighborhood.
We are currently in a period of intense demand in the housing market, Union Square is a prime location because on its proximity to Boston and Cambridge, and its ongoing growth in new innovation and knowledge-based businesses. The only way to address this demand is to build new housing which appeals to people who want to remain in the Square and those who wish to enter the local market.
This was a goal of SomerVision, but the market has continued to evolve rapidly since that plan was approved. That’s why City Officials are wisely acting on the recommendations of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council which estimates we need 9,000 new housing units in Somerville in order to keep up with demand. New housing units are also a far better alternative than condominium conversion which displaces the renters who cannot afford to buy. New housing will relieve the pressure on existing rentals which now are the target of condo converters.
Housing is also needed to support new commercial and retail development, and to expand Union Square’s existing mixed-use neighborhood. Everyone agrees we need more commercial development in Union Square. But we also need to support our current small businesses – restaurants, retailers, etc. – and those that will continue to sprout up to serve our needs. Mixed-use development creates a healthy environment which is self-sustaining.
A balance of new housing and, commercial and retail development is in character with what we all love about Union Square. The Square is a desirable place to live because of our small businesses, ethnic markets, whimsical shops, and unique bars and restaurants. For businesses like these to thrive, they need a neighborhood that is active during more than just the hours of 9-5.
Lastly, as everyone is aware, we are currently experiencing an unprecedented real estate market, driven in part by low interest rates and other positive financial indicators. Developers are confidently proceeding with projects based on those indicators. But as we have seen in the past, those factors can change very quickly and new development can cease. Let’s not delay Union Square’s redevelopment by challenging and reexamining recently made sound decisions. The redevelopment plans may not be perfect for all, but continuing to seek that allusive goal will only lead to missed opportunities.