"This board is facing one of the most critical moments in the city's history," White said after introducing the five new members of the Board of Aldermen—nearly half the 11-person board's membership.
"Our city is as ripe for development as it was 125 years ago"
White, speaking at inaugural ceremonies held at the East Somerville Community School, recalled the decisions of Somerville leaders 125 years ago, when new streetcar lines into Boston encouraged "unregulated development" and led to Somerville becoming the most densely populated city in New England, filled with multi-story homes on small lots. The city was "transit oriented" before the term even existed, he joked.
Somerville, with affordable housing and easy streetcar access to jobs, became a foothold for immigrants seeking opportunities, he said, but it eventually suffered from urban decline and an exodus of residents to the suburbs.
Somerville has seen "true renovation and rejuvenation since the mid-'90s," he said, but with the coming of the Green Line Extension, "our city is as ripe for development as it was 125 years ago."
Community vs. transient population
White argued such real estate development needs to include space for families and commercial growth.
He asked if Somerville would become "a community in the true sense of the word" or simply a desirable place for people to spend a few years and then move on.
A community can't exist "when too many of its residents are transient," he said, warning against becoming a city in which people don't know their neighbors or participate in civic activities.
White said a common story he hears from young mothers in Somerville is that they moved into small condos with their husbands a few years previously, had a kid, recognized the need for an additional bedroom, but couldn't find reasonably priced housing in the city. As a result, they leave Somerville.
"We need to create a housing stock with two and three bedroom units to accommodate those families," he said.
The city also needs to encourage commercial development to take pressure off the residential tax burden, he said.
A critical moment
In short, the city needs to carefully consider real estate development and its effects, he argued. After all the groundbreaking ceremonies and photo ops, "those buildings and their consequences will live on," he said.
White said, "Somerville will probably never have the sense of community it had decades ago," because society has changed.
He concluded, "The task to reinvigorate our sense of community falls squarely on us all."