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Alderman Confronts Development, Loss of Community in Inaugural Speech

In his inaugural speech, Somerville Board of Aldermen President William White warned that Somerville was losing its sense of community and attracting a transient population.

Somerville Board of Alderman President William White delivering his inaugural speech on Jan. 6, 2014. Credit: Chris Orchard
Somerville Board of Alderman President William White delivering his inaugural speech on Jan. 6, 2014. Credit: Chris Orchard
In his inaugural speech Monday night, Alderman At-Large William White, president of the Somerville Board of Alderman, warned the city about a loss of community, a transient population and ill-considered real estate development.

"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."

More on Somerville's Inaugural Ceremonies


Scott January 08, 2014 at 12:24 PM
Ah yes, nostalgia for the good ol' days when people used to feel a sense of community....what a load of crap. The city's changing and a lot of us think it's changing for the good. It's safer, cleaner and more alive. There are a lot of us out there who are community-minded without being stuck in some imagined happy past.
Paula Woolley January 09, 2014 at 04:50 PM
Scott, Alderman White wasn't waxing nostalgic about the past. His point was that there's a massive amount of turnover in residents every year, and that it's hard for many families to stay here. He said the city needs to make sure to build new housing with 3 bedrooms that families can stay in if they have more than one child (a boy and a girl, for example). He cited a statistic from the census about the high percentage of residents who hadn't lived at their current address a year ago, and the small percentage of residents who lived here 10 years ago. He noted that many people move to new apartments within the city. But if most of those people are moving out of the city every year or so, how can we sustain a feeling of community with all that transience? And he said the city needs to make housing affordable for the middle class and for families, besides adding to the stock of 3-bedroom units.
AHM January 10, 2014 at 06:17 AM
It was well said by Bill. Although I really don't expect a change as it won't fit in with the mayor and the developer's plans. It's too late in the game to make that kind of reasonable change.
genedebs1 January 10, 2014 at 12:46 PM
hey Paula, I think you are right. I re-read Bill's comments carefully. There is certainly a conundrum here. Without a more diversified tax base...an without a more sustainable revenue stream...the cost of housing will continue to rise...with the city unable to really subsidizing the formula for affordable housing. (I know you know this all too well..)..which means that we need to make some compromises relative to the type of development that will take place in Union Square. I think Bill was trying his best to say that we need to be most conscious about this balance..creating good "place"...balancing the height of buildings...and making sure that we take advantage of the opportunities that are presented. It's a hard job...something we don't have a lot of experience with..but I know we have a lot of committed residents who really want to make it work. I'm going to remain hopeful that we can learn from our past mistakes and really invite the community to participate.
Tom O'Brien January 13, 2014 at 08:04 PM
The comments were wonderful, unfortunately it is too little too late. I don't understand where Bill has been while Union Square was re-zoned for massive density, or while the enormous Maxwell Green project was built, or while two- and three-family homes are being turned into condos, almost automatically. The sense of community that was Somerville, I feel, is gone, for the sake of trendy restaurants and bars, road races, and bike lanes.

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