Public Protest to Fight a Social Injustice is a Civic Responsibility

At any given time, the one mile stretch from Sullivan Station to McGrath Highway on Washington Street can back-up with trucks, cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, electric scooters, and bicycles as commuters elbow their way through East Somerville. On Thursday mornings between 9:00 and 10:00 AM, many of these commuters have become accustomed to seeing an assembly of Cobble Hill elders who stand with home-made signs in determined protest of the city’s plans for 90 Washington Street.

These very public “stand outs” began in May and it doesn’t seem to matter much if it rains or shines, they show up every Thursday, regardless. Fortified by their friendships and outfitted with informative “protest” signs, they stay busy by waving, handing out leaflets, and conducting friendly exchanges with inquisitive commuters, many of whom offer words of encouragement from rolled down windows.

There are never less than three – and at times as many as thirteen – that cue a line along Washington Street. And although they labor to call-out what they know to be a thoughtless injustice, they are most praiseworthy for their faith in civic engagement and their unshakable commitment to pass along something of value for the next generation.

The injustice they oppose is too complex to fit on a bumper strip for public consumption. In their words, the city of Somerville was horribly wrong to “land grab” the quality-of-life assets that provide Cobble Hill elders enjoyment, safety, and livability. And by all accounts, that is exactly what appears to have happened. Had any one of the seniors been similarly robbed of their personal belongings it would reflect a difference without much of a distinction.

In 2019 the city invoked eminent domain powers to take four acres of land fronting the MBTA’s newest subway stop aptly named East Somerville. Incomprehensibly, the city’s 90 Washington Street “hostile takeover” also included the snatching of 37 Cobble Hill parking spaces, a fire and safety alleyway that also allows for trash removal for a 78-unit midrise building, and a verdant urban oasis of landscaped green space populated with 85 mature trees. The latter of which is a rare and valuable commodity in an area of East Somerville that is not known for its green space.

For over 40-years these “quality of life assets” were owned and professionally maintained by Cobble Hill Apartments, a 224-unit affordable housing elderly development. It escapes explanation how anyone thought taking these real estate assets away from low-income seniors was a good idea. And to add fuel to the fire, when city officials occasionally speak “off the record”, there is unanimous consensus of the 90 Washington Street project being a terrible mistake.

Seemingly insensible to any opposition on this issue, the Mayor and her Planning Department remain determined to redevelop the former Cobble Hill land parcels into a Public Safety Building (PSB) with a projected 2,263 siren alarm trips per year. This too is a bitter pill to swallow for an elderly community that greatly values their quiet enjoyment as well.

One might have reason to pause if city planners could point to an overriding financial benefit to the city. But that too is illusory. The city’s overhyped Demonstration Plan projected the cost of a new PSB between $63.2 and $82.5. Today’s $110,000,000 projection had stressed the city’s budgets well before the recent “pro tanto” court order that increased the city’s land taking expense by $26,606,000. This avoidable miscalculation amounts to an “own goal” blunder whereby unintentional harm resulted from poorly conceived actions.

Ever optimistic, the Cobble Hill protestors think there might be a “silver lining” in the court ordered “sticker shock”. They believe this time around the city’s empty coffers will overrule bad public policy. What they didn’t foresee was the emergency closing of the Winter Hill Community School in June after chunks of falling concrete exposed the presence of asbestos. Ever hopeful, the Cobble Hill protestors now theorize a massive, unexpected school restoration project might now be at odds with the PSB cost overruns. If their calculation is correct, they believe the city will fund education over a poorly conceived PSB plan for 90 Washington Street.

Disarmingly cordial, the protestors insist they are not anti-development or burn-down-the-house type of activists. They simply value what little they have and cannot understand why the city would do something so hurtful and disrespectful to them. They report having written letters expressing their concerns and attending all the Planning Department’s zoom presentations and public meetings. But answers to their questions were never forthcoming so they did their homework and discovered fateful flaws in the city’s site selection study. The most telling was one error in reporting the site scoring of the land parcels under consideration. The mistake was found in the initial cost estimate of taking 90 Washington Street as it has increased seven-fold from $4,671,900 to $35,306,000. Had the correct totals been reported initially, 90 Washington Street would have ranked the least favorable of the six studied parcels.

Far from being cynical, the Cobble Hill protesters remain confident of the righteousness of their cause. They are convinced Somerville is a city of good-willed people who will learn the facts and come to their rescue. When asked how and when, they admit they don’t know. They believe it will happen, nonetheless.

So, their plans for now are to continue turning out every Thursday morning and putting their hope against hope that in this election year, new leadership will step forward to restore Cobble Hill’s valued treasures.

Their conviction and dedication should be an inspiration to all who see wrong and work to make it right.

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