Posted: Aug. 17, 2012
By Chris Orchard
The city has released a plan that would pave the way for major redevelopment of Union Square over the next few decades.
The plan designates nearly 117 acres of Union Square as a revitalization district, and it calls for the city to acquire seven key "development blocks"—currently assessed as being worth around $26 million, in total—for future disposition to developers.
The development blocks include parcels of property held by approximately 29 different owners, not including those already owned by the city of Somerville and the Somerville Redevelopment Authority. Many of the properties are used for auto repair businesses or warehouse and industrial space, though some are shops and restaurants, and two are homes.
You can read the whole Union Square Revitalization Plan in the photos and PDFs section of this article.
Green Line station first, further development—maybe a new city hall—to follow
Most immediately, the plan calls for the city to acquire a number of properties—between Prospect Street, Somerville Avenue and Allen Street—to create a development block that would be home to a future MBTA Green Line station. This parcel, called the "North Prospect Block," would be set aside for the development of retail, restaurant, office, research and development, and residential space to coincide with the station.
Eventually, the plan calls for Union Square to become a district "urban in character, with high-quality, multi-story office, R&D, and housing above retail, restaurant, and service establishments at street level, existing side-by-side with the historic commercial core and low-rise surrounding core neighborhoods of 1-3 family homes."
The plan also calls for open space, parks and plazas, and it encourages walking, biking, public transportation and car sharing.
Further in the future, the plan calls for the development of a "Civic Block," where the current police station is, that could be home to a new city hall.
Other development blocks call for office, research and development, retail, restaurant, residential and art-related uses.
If realized, the revitalization plan would significantly transform Union Square.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, presenting the plan to the Somerville Board of Aldermen Thursday, called it "a model of smart growth and transit-oriented development."
The plan aims to create 4,300 new jobs and more than 850 new units of housing, according to the mayor's presentation.
"It does not propose the overhaul of our unique neighborhood," Curtatone told the Board of Aldermen. He cautioned, "This map does not represent an immediate action plan for all these parcels."
Declaring Union Square "decadent," and what's next
To achieve this goal, the city submitted the Union Square Revitalization Plan to the Somerville Redevelopment Authority, which approved it on Aug. 15.
The Redevelopment Authority declared the Union Square district included in the plan (see map in photos section) as "decadent."
The plan elaborates on this definition:
"No significant private investment has occurred in most of the properties for over fifty years; the overwhelming majority of parcels lack the minimum lot size required to meet current zoning; and the ordinary operations of private enterprise, acting alone, are unlikely to reverse these conditions. Obstacles that prevent private redevelopment from achieving the goals of the community include:
- faulty parcelization;
- obsolete street patterns;
- flooding and unsuitable and/or contaminated soil;
- incompatible land uses; and
- deteriorated buildings and facilities.
The revitalization plan was officially presented to the Somerville Board of Aldermen on Aug. 16. The Board of Aldermen will hold a public process, including a public hearing, to create a final version of the plan. If approved, which could happen sometime in early fall, it would go before the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, which would have 30 days to make a decision on whether or not to accept the plan.
City will seek development partners
"Things are going to change in Union Square," Curtatone said about the plan.
He said the plan is intended to spur economic development and that the expected Green Line station in Union Square is vital to the plan.
"Eventually, we want a development partner. We're not there yet," he said, comparing future development in Union Square to how the city has managed development in Assembly Square.
Unlike with Assembly Square, the city would likely partner with multiple developers in Union Square, according to Anne Thomas, special counsel with the city of Somerville.
"The interest is going to be extremely positive for Union Square," Curtatone said.
The city has not been in official discussions with potential developers yet, the mayor said. "We have no formal suiters. We have a lot strong interest right now," he said.
That said, the city is moving fast on the parcel of land associated with the Green Line station, the so-called North Prospect Block.
Depending on how things progress with the Green Line station, the city could be looking for development partners on that parcel of land as early as next year, said Michael Glavin, director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.
Development on the other parcels is years away.
With development, Curtatone said he expects Union Square to retain a unique character with a "strong diverse cultural mix" that includes the "creative artistic element that's so unique to Union Square."