Mayor Grilled on Union Square Plans

During a live chat held Thursday, participants voiced skepticism about plans for redeveloping Union Square.

Credit: Amy
Credit: Amy
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and other city officials held a live chat Thursday to answer questions about the redevelopment of Union Square.

You can read a transcript of the whole live chat here.

The group—that also included Michael Glavin, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, Ed O'Donnell, director of economic development, and Hayes Morrison, director of transportation and infrastructure—answered some tough, and at times testy, questions about plans for redeveloping the square.

A number of participants expressed concerns about the threat of eminent domain takings and the use of one "master developer" to redevelop several parcels in Union Square.

The live chat was hosted by a live-blogging program called CoveritLive, which Somerville Patch has used in the past. The program allows for a moderator to pick and chose questions, which is necessary for logistical reasons—you can only answer one question at a time, and you don't want offensive and vulgar posts to ruin the live chat. 

Below are some highlights from Thursday's live chat. Again, you can read the whole transcript here.

How can local businesses get "a fair shot?"

Debra McLaughlin, a member of Somerville Local First, said a master developer would tend to work with national businesses and chains. She asked, "How can Somerville Local First ... best work with the city during the process to ensure our local businesses [get] a fair shot at new commercial spaces?"

The City of Somerville responded, "Successful national developers recognize that leveraging the local assets of a community—the local businesses, the local character, the local flavor, leads to success."

Master developer could walk away, "leaving the city to clean up the mess"

Ron Newman commented, "I am concerned that choosing a master developer and condemning lots of private property by eminent domain will lead to what has just happened in Quincy Center—the developer suddenly deciding that the project isn't profitable and walking away, leaving the city to clean up the mess."

The City of Somerville responded, "We hope that Quincy will have long-range success, but their model is completely different. We are seeking a partner from the beginning that aligns with our community values and that will help us identify and solve long-term infrastructure issues, unlock and leverage opportunities to create jobs, enhance the main streets model and take advantage of the creative energy throughout the city and build more space for innovation, maker movements, and the cultural arts. We are also seeking a partner that will take careful sequential steps and that is a strong, well-capitalized partner in advance of development."

Thriving businesses "in limbo"

Renee Polcaro asked, "Why must we leave unique already thriving establishments that want to stay in Union Square in limbo about their future not knowing if this 'not yet known' single developer will work with them or just buy them out? (Examples: Crossfit Somerville, Ricky's Flowers)."

The City of Somerville responded, "There are automotive businesses everywhere, but not everywhere has a Ricky’s or an Ebi Sushi. These businesses are part of Union Square’s unique character, and serve to 'activate' the square, creating the active, vibrant streetscape that we want. They’re a part of the solution. The City will work with businesses affected by redevelopment to find them a home in the square."

Plan could lead to "little to no local character"

An unnamed commenter asked, "How do you intend for the redevelopment of Union Square to proceed in a direction different from that of Assembly Square, or Medford's Station Landing, which have resulted in developments with little to no local character, and devoid of any real community feel? These seem to be the typical results of redevelopment by large national developers. What makes you expect that the process in Union Square will be any different?"

The City of Somerville rejected the comparison between Station Landing and development in Assembly Square, and then said, "In Union, there’s already a great, unique neighborhood with its own character, but it’s largely active at night with many restaurants not opening until evening. So just as the plan calls for expanding the active, pedestrian-friendly physical area of the square, it will create an 18-hour economy in Union Square that has both an active daytime population created by workers and residents, and an active nighttime population."

"Insulting" to small business owners 

Another unnamed commenter said, "I simply don't understand the choice to go with a single developer who gets to 'decide' what kind of business 'should' be in our square. They 'should' be in the square because they opened a business and were successful in creating a following for their business. It is insulting to those small business owners who have worked hard to hold onto their craft in their brick & mortar location through the recession."

The City of Somerville said, "The master developer will not 'choose' which businesses will exist in the square, but rather work with the city and community to build the structures and public spaces that will attract new businesses to the square and provide opportunities for existing businesses that align with SomerVision goals to remain in the square."

Avoiding condos on stilts

Paul asked, "Why couldn't we use the power of zoning to shape what we want, by incentivizing owners to either develop or sell to someone who will?"

The City of Somerville responded: "Zoning revisions alone are important, but they only set the table and some parameters for development. Having a master developer will avoid piecemeal projects like condos on stilts, and instead create the mix of uses the community wants over time."

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