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Bitter Union Square Affordable Housing Dispute to Go Through Mediation

The mayor has encouraged both sides in a contentious neighborhood dispute to sit down with professional mediators.

A dispute over a proposed affordable housing project in Union Square became so heated the mayor's office has decided to sponsor professional mediation among the groups involved.

The city will use the Consensus Building Institute, known as CBI, based in Cambridge, to sit down with the , which is planning the affordable housing project, Union Square Rising, a resident group opposed to the project, and others in the neighborhood to see if there's any common ground.

Maybe there is, maybe there isn't.

The Somerville Community Corporation proposal, for the former Boys & Girls Club Building at 181 Washington St., currently calls for 40 units of affordable housing at the site. Somerville Community Corporation owns the building.

A series of community meetings held over the winter and spring drew opponents to the project, and the rift between the two sides seemed to get more heated at each meeting. In June, members of Union Square Rising , and one person who supported the project, but who was not officially affiliated with it, called the picketers "racist pigs."

News that the issue would go into a mediation process came two days before a planned community forum about the project. That forum, scheduled for Wednesday, has now been cancelled.

The mayor stepped in

Union Square Rising and the Somerville Community Corporation both said they had discussions with Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone's office about participating in the mediation process.

Thomas Champion, a spokesperson in the mayor's office, said the mayor "offered to provide this mediation process because of what he regards as past success" with it. The city previously used CBI's services in 2010 over a dispute at 343 Summer St., Champion said, and it also used CBI in 2003 in Assembly Square.

Zac Zasloff, a founding member of Union Square Rising, said, "I think this is a step in the right direction to quell the unrest in the community."

He said it will allow the two sides of the issue to "sit down and talk like adults" without distractions from fringe supporters on each side.

"Hopefully the SCC"—Somerville Community Corporation—"comes to the table with an open mind," he said. Zasloff offered some areas where Union Square Rising might be able to support the affordable housing project. Those areas include putting some market rate units in the development and putting more retail space on the ground floor, which would, under the current plans, be occupied in part by new offices for the Somerville Community Corporation.

Danny LeBlanc, executive director of the Somerville Community Corporation, said his organization would be willing to consider such options, but noted it's hard to find financing for mixed-income projects with low income housing tax credits, which the organization generally uses to fund its projects.

LeBlanc also said the process isn't a two-sided negotiation between his group and Union Square Rising. He said part of the mediaton process would be to identify "all the stakeholders." 

"I for one don't think Union Square Rising speaks for everyone in that community," he said.

About the mediation process, LeBlanc said, "We're excited about it."

What next

The first step in the process, which could begin in the next few weeks, will be a series of interviews to learn about each side's point of view. As a reuslt of the interviews, CBI could determine there's some room for compromise and common ground. Or, it could decidde that everyone involved is so far apart it's not worth continuing the process.

Champion said the city would pay for the mediation, but he didn't know how much it would cost. CBI is a non-profit organization, and when Somerville used CBI in 2010 it cost about $2500, he said.

According to Champion, the mayor thinks it's worth the cost if the mediation process leads to a project that's better for the city.

More on the Boys & Girls Club affordable housing proposal

Matt C July 10, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Congrats to the mayor for working to ensure that all voices are heard and providing a path to an amicable agreement.
Joe Beckmann July 14, 2012 at 12:17 PM
The Mayor's mediation is admirable - or questionable - in many ways. Clearly people don't know their neighbors, and mediation introduces them. On the other hand, listening to the Consensus Building Institute website, I don't see how Somerville mirrors cities like Sao Paulo (with major transit changes - supported, ironically, by MIT), or Palestine and Israel or Johannesburg or Belfast! These seem way out of scale, ignore the nuances of Somerville's rise, fall, and renewed density, and the 54 languages of the high school. We're not talking South African racism, Northern Irish Civil War or the extremes of the poorest neighborhoods in all of South America. We are talking about varying sensibilities to "affordable" housing - which is not low income - and to entitled gentrification. It will be interesting to see if Suskind's people can go beyond what they call "thin ice" agreements. In Somerville such agreements - between small family newcomer middle income former suburbanites and large family immigrants or old time working class - are both less extreme and far more frequent, informal, and less ritualized than signs, demonstrations, and naive politics can resolve. It will be even more interesting to see if Suskind's MIT mediators are as sensitive in neighborhoods less than two miles from where they live as they are in exotic world cities.
Matt C July 16, 2012 at 03:24 PM
I would suggest l would suggest looking at the case study of "Mediating a Contentious Redevelopment Plan" which is a bit more similar to the situation in Somerville. Though I disagree with your use of the word sensibilities as I think that the different sides of the issue are equally informed, my expectation is that the use of mediation helps everyone understand one another position and this will lead to an agreeable resolution.

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