SNN: Groups Protest Developer, City in Union Square
Somerville, Mass. – On March 11, some 50 residents, business owners and others marched and protested in Union Square to protest the ongoing planning process for Union Square redevelopment.
“Whose Somerville? Our Somerville! Whose Square? Our Square!” the marchers chanted as they carried signs and banners with slogans like “Development without displacement” and “Community Benefits Agreement ≠ City Benefits Agreement.”
About 12 acres, located on seven blocks of real estate, are slated to be redeveloped by a master developer, chosen by the City last year. Union Square Station Associates, or US2, is a consortium of firms – led by Chicago’s Magellan Development Group LLC and Boston’s Mesirow Financial Holdings Inc. – that formed specifically to redevelop the neighborhood, which will soon be graced with two Green Line stops and a “grounded” McGrath Highway.
City officials have organized a series of fora and meetings in order to collect community input, but on March 11, the Union United coalition organized a march to criticize the process and to demand more participation.
Surrounded by people holding posters and banners on March 11, Somerville resident John Cater, who is a board member of the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), which has spearheaded the Union United coalition, spoke from the steps of the old Post Office.
“We are a coalition working to make sure that Union Square redevelopment results in benefits, not displacement,” he said. “For the Union Square community, over last year, Union United created priorities for equitable Community Benefits Agreement, or a CBA. That reflects our visions and we want to negotiate with US2. We have over 100 residents, 15 community groups, 14 local businesses, 4 religious congregate, immigrant groups and labor unions in Union United.”
A CBA is an agreement between a developer, who stands to make a profit, and a community or city, where the developer. The firm makes certain promises regarding open space, jobs, affordable housing, and other issues. The contract – meant to be legally enforceable – can between a developer and a city official or agency, or between a developer and a community group or coalition.
City officials have said repeatedly that, while they will take into account recommendations from community members via the Civic Advisory Committee, a volunteer group whose members were chosen by City Hall, the Union Square CBA or CBAs (there may be more than one) will be solely between US2 and the City of Somerville. [See this story by SNN to learn more.]
Union United is asking for the CBA process to be opened up, and for community groups to be negotiating and signing any final agreement(s), as has been the case in other cities.
Members of the coalition are also asking for the City to give guarantees that locally owned businesses will not be driven out by sky-rocketing real estate prices.
“Throughout the years, we work as small businesses really hard to make our businesses profitable and better. We put a lot of effort and money and our heart to our businesses,” Angelica Benatti of Master Printing & Signs said at the protest.
“There’s been a lot of talking about businesses and people who will come here to work and live in Somerville, but what about us, who are already here now?” she added. “We’ve been contacting the Mayor’s office, requesting a meeting with the Mayor so we can share with him our thoughts and we can listen to their ideas too. We know that he cares a lot about this Square as much as we do… Together, I’m sure that we make this happen.”
A Somerville High School student also spoke.
“I love the city so much and really believe that this is a place that I belong and it really is my home,” Bukhari Brown said. “But… my friends, my colleagues, my peers, they… have been forced out of Somerville, because they can’t afford to live here… It’s just so painful for a city that is so famous for its diversity to have gentrification happen everywhere, and for the City to lose its credibility.”
This story originally ran on Somerville Neighborhood News on March 25, 2015.