Disunion in Union Square: Controversy Heats Up Somerville Neighborhood

Liam Cunningham
Spare Change News

A positive redevelopment project? Or a textbook case of harmful gentrification?

This is the central question driving a debate in Somerville that has created a stark division of opinion between residents, community organizers, politicians, attorneys, and landowners involved with the issue. The issue revolves around a proposed renovation project to properties on Somerville Avenue, by Union Square.

The proposed project will feature 30 new condos and four retail units at 378-390 Somerville Avenue. This property currently consists of four units that total 18,400 square feet. There is a three-story building that contains three commercial spaces (including a workshop and grocery store) on the ground floor, and four residential units above. There is also a 2 ½ story 8-unit house, a 2 ½ story 3-unit house, and a parking lot in the rear.

The majority of the residences in the building are rental units for primarily low-income citizens. The project has generated controversy, as many of these tenants will be priced out of their residences by the new, upscale condominiums being put in and then possibly be left homeless. This has caused many angry Somerville citizens to label the project a case of gentrification that threatens the livelihoods of poorer citizens.

Gentrification is a term that refers to the phenomenon of upper/middle class citizens moving into lower income areas and initiating upscale renewal and renovation projects that often displace poorer residents.

The proposal has recently been approved by the Somerville planning board; however, in the months leading up to this decision, several protests were held in various locations around Somerville. The first took place in front of City Hall in April, followed by one held at Union Square’s first farmers market of the season in June. In July, several protests were held outside planning board meetings related to the project.

Despite these protests, several of which were organized by the Somerville Community Corporation, the renovation has been approved. In the meantime, those at the SCC will now work to make sure residents scheduled to lose their homes will not be left on the street.

Mary Regan is a community organizer at the Somerville Community Corporation. Regan has worked with the SCC for four years, and primarily works with the affordable housing committee to encourage affordable housing and preventing displacement. Regan first became involved with the Somerville Avenue issue last year, and was concerned for the lives of the buildings residents.

“I started knocking on doors at 378-390 Somerville Avenue last year when I heard the building was for sale. When buildings are for sale tenants often become scared. I wanted to let them know that we could be supportive to them, let them know their rights, and that if we worked together, there as a chance of getting them better treatment from the landlord,” Regan said.

This union between the residents and the SCC gave rise to the protests that took place in the spring and early summer. Despite these protests, the efforts were unable to prevent the project from going forward. On July 14th, with a crowd of around 40 sign-holding protestors outside, the planning board voted unanimously for the plan to build the condos.

Despite the decision, the approved plan did include conditions which require the owner to obey the local condo conversion ordinance, which encourages the developer to sell four designated units to non-profits so that they may be rented affordably. While Regan believes that these provisions are a good thing, she knows that there is still reason for concern.

“While these conditions are good, we had been pushing for the owner to agree to pay actual moving expenses, not just the limited expenses included in the ordinance. We wanted provisions for tenants who may not be recognized because they sub-let and are not official tenants. Also, the owner is agreeing to sell the designated units to non-profits, (but) it is unclear whether or not he will actually follow these provisions,” Regan said.

For Regan, this issue has motivated those at the SCC to work toward an overriding shift in Somerville’s city policies; a shift that aims to maintain affordable housing in the community.

“We want the city to strengthen its ordinances to promote more affordable housing in any new development. The city is 2/3 renters and new development has been overwhelmingly condos that are not affordable for low-income renters,” Regan said. “We’re going to try to change city policies so that tenants don’t have to go through what these people are going through now. We’re making serious efforts to prevent further displacement.”

Regan believes that if this trend of new, higher priced development continues, it erode and eradicate the unique identity that characterizes Somerville.

“So many people mention the word diversity when discussing Somerville as a great place to be. Well, unless we act to protect low income renters, artists, and immigrants, we won’t have that diversity that people claim to enjoy.”

James Herbert is the owner of the building on Somerville Avenue slated for renovation, and has subsidized the building for decades. For those on one side of the debate, he is an elderly man looking to maximize his profits at the expense of the low-income citizens occupying his building.

For others, he is simply a man who has provided affordable housing for decades, and is now looking to put a project in place that will improve the quality of the neighborhood.

Rich Di Girolamo is the attorney representing Herbert and has spent extensive time working with him in conjunction with the project at Somerville Avenue.

“I have represented the owner over a period of two years working to design a project compatible with the surrounding area. We have made several design changes in an attempt to come up with the best possible project,” said Di Girolamo.

Di Girolamo states that the project is consistent with the zoning regulations put in place by the city around three years ago. He also believes the project will have a substantial, positive effect on the entire region.
“It’s a project that we and a lot of other people are very excited about. We believe it will act as an impetus for the future, further development of Union Square, and will serve as a gateway to the entire region,” the attorney said. “My guy (Herbert) has owned the property for a long time. The property is not in good condition and we want to change that. The project will transform the entire area for the better.”

Di Girolamo’s sentiments of optimism and positivity regarding the project are similarly reflected in a letter submitted to the Somerville Journal by the Union Square Main Streets Board of Directors this past May.

The letter offers evidence based support for the project, opening by stating: “The proposed development at 380 Somerville Avenue meets the community goals for Union Square and is worthy of public support.”
The letter highlights that the project design is a “thoughtful one that pays attention to the surrounding neighborhood,” and will roughly double the number of residential units and triple the retail space, while also preserving the historical façade on the front of the building.

Regarding the potential displacement of renters, the article briefly acknowledges the issue, stating: “While concerns about the displacement of the current renters are appropriate, there is significant time to find new homes for residents and a new retail location for Wellfoods in Union Square.”

The letter also uses a comparison between Union and Davis Square to illustrate how the Somerville neighborhood is not maximizing its potential: “While Union Square is nearly equal in land to Davis Square, the neighborhood generates just 54 % of the assessed value.”

Comparisons between these two neighborhoods have been a recurring theme of this ongoing debate, being used by both sides of the argument. Those against the redevelopment plan cite Davis Square as an example of a once authentic, unique place that lost its character due to gentrification and renewal. Those in support of the proposal point to this redevelopment as a positive renewal that has improved the quality of Davis Square.

The letter concludes by stating that “the long-term benefits of this redevelopment are substantial for Union Square and Somerville and the proposal of deserving of community support.”

Despite this letter and the evidence it presents, the project still largely lacks support amongst Somerville residents, particularly those in close proximity to the building scheduled for demolition.

Kirk Etherton is a Union Square resident and has lived there for years. Etherton has close relationships with many of the people in the neighborhood, and he, along with these folks, strongly believes that the project is a bad idea on multiple levels.

“The project is one that’s going to obliterate an entire block; it’s taking down three buildings and a parking lot, and replacing it with a 55-foot tall structure,” Etherton said. “People in the neighborhood just believe it’s a bad idea, on a number of levels. Firstly, it’s aesthetically unappealing, but more significantly it’s disrupting people and disrupting lives.”

Etherton views the project as an example of a recurring trend both locally and nationally.

“This isn’t just an issue here in Boston; it’s a problematic trend nationally. There is less affordable housing everywhere, especially with rental units,” Etherton said.

Somerville is a city that has had to deal with constant change and construction in recent times. There is currently a major project in the works that will bring the green line to the city.

“People in this neighborhood have had to deal with these destructive construction projects for so long. And just when it seems like it has come to an end, another huge project comes along,” said Etherton.

Much like Mary Regan, who was the first person to make Kirk aware for the issue, Etherton has believes that the project will serve to change the inherent character of Union Square, at the expense of many of the neighborhood’s most unique residents.

“Union Square is a unique, interesting place. And there’s a diverse population of people living there, from all over the world, and that’s what makes it interesting,” said Etherton. “So basically these developments are taking advantage of the unique character that this population creates, and at the same time telling them to get lost with project like this one.”

As it stands now, due to a clause in Somerville’s condo conversion ordinance, the tenants currently living in the building slated for reconstruction will have until February 2013 to vacate their homes. Until then, the service staff at the Somerville Community Corporation is working closely with these residents to find them new, affordable homes.

Having been approved by Somerville’s Planning Board, this project will most likely begin as soon as possible.
However, it will take years to truly see whether or not this controversial project will prove to have a positive, uplifting impact on the community; or a damaging, harmful, and detracting one.

LIAM CUNNINGHAM is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.





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