At least three members of the Somerville Board of Aldermen indicated they would not vote for the Union Square Revitalization Plan that was presented by the mayor's office in August.
Alderman At-Large William White, Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz and Ward 3 Alderman Thomas Taylor all spoke against specific aspects of the plan, though not against the broader concept of revitalizing Union square, at the Board of Aldermen meeting Thursday night.
At the meeting, aldermen debated the matter with Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.
Then, in what amounted to a dramatic exercise of parliamentary procedure by Somerville standards, Taylor, who serves as president of the Board of Aldermen, abruptly ended the debate by declaring a "Section 15."
Section 15, written into the Somerville Board of Aldermen's charter, allows any member of the Board to unilaterally end debate about a given item and table it until the next meeting.
Opposition to the plan
In explaining his decision to declare a Section 15, Taylor said, "I believe this plan goes too far."
The Union Square Revitalization Plan would turn much of Union Square into a "revitalization district," targeting seven specific "development blocks" that the city, over about 20 years, hopes to redevelop into office, research and development, housing above retail, and restaurant space.
Crucially, the plan names several properties as "acquisition parcels" that could possibly be taken by eminent domain. Most immediately, it calls for the city to acquire parcels between Prospect Street, Somerville Avenue and Allen Street for construction of a Green Line MBTA station and related development.
For Taylor, moving forward with the Green Line station should be a separate issue from broader redevelopment plans in Union Square. The threat of eminent domain has created "a lot of stress and hardship" for small businesses in the area, he said, adding, "I don't believe there's been a dialogue" with businesses in the neighborhood.
In declaring the Section 15, Taylor hoped to buy time to sit down with the mayor's office to discuss some of his concerns.
Gewirtz made a similar argument. She said the threat of eminent domain was "casting a shadow" on the futures of some businesses in the area and that in passing the plan "we are ceding our authority to the Somerville Redevelopment Authority" on eminent domain decisions. She agreed with Taylor that the issue of the Green Line station should be considered separately.
White had "strong objections" to the plan because he felt it put Somerville on the hook for millions of dollars, even when the arrival of the Green Line station, a catalyst for development, isn't assured. Part of the plan envisions a new library, which would cost the city $25 million, he said. He didn't think a library was the best economic use of the land.
He said, "There is absolutely no assurance that the Green Line is coming to Union Square" and "if the T doesn't come, will we be spending money needlessly?"
Responding to White, Curtatone said, "With any urban renewal plan, it is long-term transformation." He said aspects of the plan would likely change over time.
The mayor said a recent memorandum of agreement with the MBTA, in addition to assurances from the governor and state secretary of transportation, give "much greater certainty" that the Green Line will be extended into Union Square.
He said the revitalization plan is a "necessary piece" to transforming Union Square.
After Taylor declared Section 15, Curtatone left the chamber vowing to request a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen during the upcoming week, at which point the aldermen would have to take up the matter.
He said, "We feel confident with the plan."
On Sept. 25, the Housing and Community Development Committee, with all but two aldermen present, voted 6 to 3 in favor of the plan, Curtatone said, indicating it likely has support from the majority of aldermen.
As for the concerns voiced about the plan, Curtatone said it's "a healthy debate to have."