Group Pulls Out of Union Square Affordable Housing Mediation Process

Union Square Rising, a group that opposes an affordable housing proposal in Union Square, says there's a conflict of interest with a firm hired by the city to serve as mediators.

Union Square Rising, a group that opposes an , has decided to pull out of city-sponsored mediation that was intended to soothe bitter tensions connected to the proposal.

Zac Zasloff, a leader of Union Square Rising, said in an email and in speaking with Somerville Patch the group's decision to pull out stems from a perceived conflict of interest with the firm hired to conduct the mediation, Consensus Building Institute, or CBI, out of Cambridge.

The perceived conflict of interest arises from information, first published in the Somerville Journal, that one of CBI's managing directors, David Fairman, worked in 1989 for the , the non-profit group planning to build the 40-unit affordable housing development at the former Boys & Girls Clubs site on Washington Street.

That former connection would mean the mediation process would be "clouded with doubt," Zasloff said.

He said Union Square Rising is still eager to go through a mediation process but wants the city to pick another firm that doesn't have a connection to one of the parties involved.

Thomas Champion, a spokesperson for the city, said the city just learned of Union Square Rising's decision Monday and will make a determination quickly about whether the mediation will move forward.

"There's a whole group of stakeholders here," Champion said, noting the mediation was not intended to bridge the gap solely between the Somerville Community Corporation and Union Square Rising. The city could move forward with the mediation process without participation from Union Square Rising.

Champion said, "We do not see that there's even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Fairman, Champion said, would not be involved in the mediation process (he heads the organization's international development practice). Champion also said CBI has an impeccable professional reputation. "CBI is a truly world class mediation service," he said.

Zasloff said Union Square Rising would willingly participate in a mediation process run by a different firm—he mentioned the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration as a possibility.

Asked if Union Square Rising was looking for an excuse to opt out of the mediation, Zasloff said, "If we were looking for an excuse … we would say we don't want mediation."

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Jasmine August 07, 2012 at 01:07 PM
Not surprising. Seems like the fix has been in from the very beginning. The city is a 'stakeholder' and not only does it pick the mediator - a firm with past ties to the developer - but it picks the other 'stakeholders.' Good luck getting a fair shake out of that! The city has been in charge of this whole charade from the beginning, pulling strings behind the scenes. Why waste the time on the mediation if it is just going to get built anyway? At least someone in this town has got the balls to call BS on the city.
LSG August 07, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Why shouldn't it get built? SCC is a private property owner that is already conforming to existing zoning regulations. The fact that they are willing to sit down with their neighbors and address whatever legitimate concerns they might have speaks volumes about their good faith. And the Union Square Rising members' silence about the similarly sized and shaped luxury condo project going in next to Market Basket, combined with stated goal of preventing the project from being built at all (as exemplified by Jasmine's comment), speaks volumes about their real objection to mediation.
Rob Buchanan August 07, 2012 at 03:42 PM
I think conflict-of-interest is real issue that should be addressed and acknowledged, especially in mediation situations. So let's evaluate this concern on its merits. The Consensus Building Institute is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1993. It provides negotiation and dispute resolution--brokering agreements and building collaboration in complex negotiations around the world. David Fairman (what a name?!) leads CBI's International Development Practice and works with "multilateral development agencies, governments, and other national partners to institutionalize collaborative approaches to planning, policy and project decision making. In the U.S., he helps stakeholders craft policies and strategies in the domains of national security, energy and environmental policy, low-income housing, criminal justice and child welfare." His CV is 12-pages long and notes such clients as: U.S.­‐Pakistan Leaders Forum, U.S.‐Muslim Engagement Project, the Asian Development Bank, the MA Dept of Youth Services, the Summit on the future of Public Housing, and many, many others. He has also authored 3 books on negotiation on public health and environmental issues. Nearly 25 years ago, he worked for SCC as a landlord-tenant mediator after college before going on to teach and conduct conflict resolution in the U.S. and abroad. One of CBI's other ~10 mediators would support the Washington St project's mediation. David would not be involved in any way. Is this a conflict? I think not.
Joe Beckmann August 07, 2012 at 04:00 PM
It is about time the "Somerville Rising" advocates stop playing the Mayor as a soft hit. Exploiting his readiness to suggest mediation by complaining that an internationally credible mediation firm is "biased" insults the Mayor's good will and his - and his city's - readiness to embrace diverse opinions. They should realize (a) the Mayor's offer was very exceptional, and flattered their apparently naive and selfish view that they must win, at all costs; (b) people involved in mediation have lengthy personal and professional histories they must regularly put aside; (c) there are people who are really professional, in mediation, in housing, and in city planning; and (d) professionals may be quite justified in disagreeing with a narrow view of "affordable housing" that lumps the really poor with the transitional moderate income population targeted by SCC. I suggest that SCC pull out and sell the site to the Somerville Housing Authority or the Somerville Homeless Coalition or, perhaps, JustaStart or advocates for recovery or rehabilitative housing to support clients of the Police Department just across the street from the site. Or, perhaps, Zak Zasloff might prefer that the city move that Police Station, since so many poor people go in and out of their neighborhood all day long.
Matt C August 07, 2012 at 07:06 PM
Joe - you are right - the city and the mayors office have been exceptional in this matter by suggesting and paying for mediation. The people involved in the mediation, I would hope, would behave professionally. The mediators personal opinion of whether the project that is all low and moderate income is a "housing project" with all the perceived challenges, trouble, drawbacks, incentives and benefits to themselves and rather focus on helping the parties in the room better understand one another, what each others concerns are and then identify a better path that keeps everyone happy. I hope that we get to hear what was asked for and what was offered.
Matt C August 07, 2012 at 07:08 PM
I hope that SCC does not pull out and rather the two groups come to some sort of middle ground where SCC is able to increase both the low income and market housing stock.
Matt C August 07, 2012 at 07:16 PM
LSG - I think you may be missing USRs issue with the development. It is not that developers are coming in and building new housing units that conform to local mandates on levels of affordable units (Somerville requires 15% to 17.5% rather than the states 12.5%) its that this development puts a disproportional burden of low income housing on the neighborhood which already has one of the highest levels in the area by adding 40 additional units of low and "moderate" income housing in the neighborhood.
guy fawkes August 07, 2012 at 11:04 PM
And the Tea Party tactics continue. Zasloff pulled out of the mediation because he is not interested in compromise. His sole objective is the destruction of a completely altruistic attempt to provide affordable housing to working class people. And why is Zasloff the only person in this group we ever hear from? He should move back to South Carolina and run for office, he could become governor. The tactics of Union Square Rising are so professional I feel like Karl Rove himself is leading the charge. It makes me wonder where they are getting their funding from and what their fearless leader's true objectives are, other than spitting in the face of hard-working Somerville people. And Jasmine, I've read your comments in the past and it leads me to believe that not only do you have no idea what is going on with the Boys and Girls Club, but you also have no concept of city politics. Mayor Joe has no vested interest in seeing this development succeed. In fact, he could score major points with weak minded people such as yourself by killing the project.
guy fawkes August 07, 2012 at 11:10 PM
Stop wasting your time with facts, Rob. If we were dealing with facts this debate would have ended long ago.
guy fawkes August 07, 2012 at 11:16 PM
I think Matt C is missing the point. First, USR has often cited density as one of their grievances with the development, an obvious lie meant to pander to anti-density advocates. But you do speak truth to the actual motivations of the group: working class people are a "burden" to "your" community. Don't worry, Matty, the "moderate" affordability is actually well beyond my income range, so us lowly poor folk won't be bothering you while you have drinks at the Independent.
Jasmine August 07, 2012 at 11:43 PM
Ha ha ha Guy. "A completely altruistic attempt to provide affordable housing to working class people." Cue the violins, please! Now who's the one with no concept of city politics? There is one motivation behind this project: Greed, pure and simple. Fifteen million bucks for 40 units? That's $375K per unit! All made possible by your tax dollars and your role as a useful idiot pushing this ridiculous idea that everyone deserves a luxury condo with dishwasher, air conditioning, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances whether they have a job or not. There are vested interests everywhere. Everyone is getting a little cut of meat off this project. That's the only way things get done in Somerville. No pay, no play.
Warren Dew August 09, 2012 at 04:41 AM
Agreed. Seems pretty bogus.
Warren Dew August 09, 2012 at 04:43 AM
Your post seems to be about qualifications, which are not the same thing as the conflict of interest issues.
Warren Dew August 09, 2012 at 04:45 AM
Altruism is when you donate your own money to help others. "Donating" money which is paid by others - in this case, Somerville property owners - is not altruism.
Warren Dew August 09, 2012 at 04:47 AM
Good point on the numbers.
Rob Buchanan August 09, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Hi Warren, I was responding to Zac Zasloff's statement that David Fairman's former employment with SCC in 1989 would mean the mediation process would be "clouded with doubt." If David's work as a landlord-tenant mediator for SCC in 1989 is relevant to the conflict of interest discussion (and I think it is), then I think the rest of David's career is also relevant. When you put his work for SCC in the context of the rest of his career and clients, and the fact that he would in no way be involved in mediating the Boys and Girls Club project, I just don't that there's a strong argument to be made for a conflict of interest or even perception thereof. USR's assertion that there is a cloud of doubt just doesn't sound credible to me, so I am left wondering if there is another motivation for pulling out and/or delaying the mediation process. Rob
LSG August 11, 2012 at 01:02 PM
Exactly, Rob. There are well-established rules for determining whether a conflict exists. In this case, there is no conflict, because the person who has the alleged conflict will not be involved in the mediation or in any aspect of the decision-making process. This is just an attempt to delay the project. By the way, a copy of Union Square Rising's petition is available through a public records request from the City, if anyone wants to see which businesses are on it.
LSG August 11, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Wow, Jasmine. So many lies and racist dog whistles (welfare queens and undeserving poor, anyone?) in one place. Thank you for bringing that out into the open where it can be addressed. Anyone who wants to find out how SCC does business and finances its project can find the information pretty easily online, since it all has to be made publicly available. Check out the video of St. Polycarp's here: nice, modest place for working class tenants. No granite. No fancy appliances. http://www.somervillecdc.org/Resources/interactives.html
LSG August 11, 2012 at 01:14 PM
I don't like donating my money to pay for your inlaid sidewalks or for upgrades that are necessary to support luxury condo projects, and, yet, the community does those things because they think it will benefit the community as a whole.
LSG August 11, 2012 at 01:29 PM
How SCC finances its projects is a matter of public record. While they, like other businesses, get favorable loans and tax credits, the perception that the Union Square Rising folks are somehow paying for this project is wildly inaccurate. This is a nonprofit real estate development corporation. It makes enough to pay its bills (which include very modest salaries - again a matter of public record), maintain existing projects, and finance new ones. http://www.somervillecdc.org/Final%202010%20Annual%20Report.pdf


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