A dispute is growing between the Somerville Community Corporation, which is planning to redevelop the old Boys & Girls Club building in Union Square into 40 units of affordable housing, and neighbors who feel the project is wrong for the area.
At a neighborhood meeting held Monday night, supporters and opponents of the development packed city hall to hear a presentation about the project and voice their opinions.
A number of commenters talked about gentrification in the area, and by the end of the meeting there was a palpable sense of resentment coming from both sides of the room.
The Somerville Community Corporation, an affordable housing organization, completed the purchase on the old Boys & Girls Club building at 181 Washington Street, in Union Square, in February, according Danny LeBlanc, CEO of Somerville Community Corporation.
The organization plans to construct a new building with 40 units of affordable housing. Of those, 8 units would be for Section 8 housing, where tenants receive government assistance for paying rent. The other units in the building would be reserved for tenants with an income of 60 percent the area's median income. For a family of four, that works out to be about $56,000 a year, said LeBlanc. A two-bedroom apartment in the building would cost about $1200 a month, and most of the units would be two-bedroom apartments, with a few one- and three-bedroom apartments.
The architecture firm DiMella Shaffer is designing the building. Frank Valdes, a senior associate at DiMella Shaffer, presented the current design Monday night and said the goal of the design was to create something "relevant" and "contemporary" that would fit in with the Union Square of the future. The neighborhood recently underwent a rezoning process in anticipation of the Green Line extension and an expected increase in development.
For and against
The aldermen's chambers in City Hall, where Monday night's meeting was held, was divided physically down the middle, more or less, with supporters of the project siting on the left and opponents siting on the right.
By and large, supporters of the development, many wearing blue Somerville Community Corporation T-shirts, talked about the need for more public housing in the city and region.
"There's a need for more affordable housing in the city of Somerville and the whole Boston area. And if not here, where?" said one man.
Katie Gradowski, from Somerville Parts and Crafts, supported the project as a way of staving off over gentrification, lamenting, "I have been part of gentrifying just about every neighborhood I've lived in."
Several neighbors, however, spoke forcefully against the project. One man said, "I think this is a bad choice for Somerville and I think this is a bad [choice] for Union Square." He added it would be "an absolute nightmare" for traffic.
"Sticking 40 units in a condensed area like that, it's insane," said Michael Nionakis, who recently ran for a seat on the Somerville Board of Aldermen.
"Clearly Union Square bears a huge brunt of those [affordable] properties. Davis [Square] doesn't at all," said Larry Kaplan, a neighbor. "If this is such a great proposal, let's do it in Davis," he said.
Some veiled accusations
At times, feelings of resentment flared up. One supporter, speaking about the sorts of people who would live in the affordable housing units—people who work in local stores, for instance—said, "Are they not good enough to live with us? I don't get it."
A neighbor against the project complained that supporters received "the loudest cheer" when they suggested opponents were prejudiced against low-income residents, which, he implied, isn't fair.
Zachary Zasloff, an opponent, said, "I vehemently oppose developments that are not market rate mixed," adding that Union Square does take the "brunt" of affordable housing.
Later, Elisha Baskin, a supporter, asked, "Who is bearing whose burden?"
One woman, talking about low-income residents of affordable housing, suggested subsidized housing didn't help them and brought up the old proverb about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man how to fish.
"We're not fish," shouted someone from the other side of the room. "They're working people!" shouted another.
Neighbors against the project have organized a group called "Union Square Rising." It's website says, "More subsidized housing is the WRONG move for Union Square."
According to Zasloff, the group collected 200 signatures from neighbors, including signatures from 20 businesses, opposing the project. "To rally your neighborhood and get 200 signatures … is a telling sign" he said.