BY AARON DENTEL-POST
Situated at a prominent entrance to Union Square, the once active Boys & Girls Club building now sits empty. But even in its current state, it’s still affecting the community.
Across Union Square, in shop windows and storefronts, signs have cropped up voicing opinions on what is currently the site’s most likely fate: affordable housing developed under the Somerville Community Corporation.
The plan is still a contentious issue for some in Union Square, with Union Square Rising and the SCC arguing opposing views over a project that they both believe will play a key role in Union Square’s future.
Zac Zasloff and Michael Nystrom, both members of Union Square Rising, said they thought there were better options for the 181 Washington St. site.
“Our question is: ‘Is this the best that Somerville can do?’” Nystrom said.
An SCC-hosted meeting on June 6 at the Argenziano School will present some of the concepts for traffic and parking, which opponents of the plan have hotly debated, but Union Square Rising says the project has larger problems and better alternatives.
The SCC has proposed a building with 40 units of affordable housing, eight of which would be Section Eight. Most of the units would range up to $56,000 for a family of four, according to SCC CEO Danny LeBlanc.
“Our position is that Somerville housing prices haven’t dipped, and in fact, rental prices are going up,” said Mary Regan, an SCC community organizer. “Somerville is a city where 60 percent of people are tenants.”
Regan said that, with pricing the way it is, even moderate-income people are having trouble finding housing.
According to a 2009 housing trends report report, 39 percent of people who move out of Somerville are moving because of the inability to pay their rent.
“It’s important that whatever changes include people that are here already,” Regan said.
Union Square Rising said they’d like to see a development that would benefit more than just a specific demographic. Creating a common space like a park or garden would bring the community together, Zasloff said.
“That’s a perfect location, where the city could have obtained that building for a very low price, and created a grandiose green space,” said Zasloff. “I mean, imagine driving into Union Square with rolling waterfalls and, you know, greenery and benches.”
But Zasloff and Nystrom also said that developing the site in a business aspect was also an attractive option, and Nystrom compared Union Square’s possibilities to changes in Kendall Square, with new restaurants opening up that he said were a result of the biotech industry.
Zasloff said the SCC had the tendency to rent to convenience stores, and that Union Square Rising wasn’t interested in creating an “epicenter for snicker bars and Gatorade.”
Instead, Nystrom said he’d really like to see a retailer like a bakery that could draw people into the area.
“Why have offices on the first floor?” said Nystrom. “I mean, that doesn’t generate business — what’s wrong with where they are?”
A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?
Both Zasloff and Nystrom voiced concern that the SCC was eager to demonize Union Square Rising by making the issue about ideologies. Zasloff said that many businesses run by first and second-generation immigrants supported Union Square Rising’s efforts to see a different development on the site.
“This isn’t about a class warfare of rich elitists trying to keep poor people out of Union Square,” said Zasloff. “None of us would have bought homes in Union Square if we were against diversity or opposed to people of other walks of life.”
Nystrom said Union Square Rising’s main interest in the project is to decrease the density of the development and make sure it would benefit Union Square “as the Boys and Girls Club — it was serving the entire community.”
Union Square Rising has gathered over 200 signatures and counting, said Zasloff, and that he believed that represented the voice of the community speaking out against the plan.
They also noted that having the offices of the SCC on the first floor wasted valuable retail space, and that having a building devoted entirely to affordable housing might mean people who lived there would face a stigma.
Zasloff said that a better plan for affordable housing in Somerville would be to just stick to inclusionary housing, which is a city zoning ordinance that every development over eight units in size should include 12.5 percent affordable housing.
“It grows in scalability with development,” Zasloff added.
According to Dana LeWinter, director of housing for the City, Somerville has 69 units of deed-restricted affordable housing through the city’s inclusionary housing program. The total number of affordable housing units in Somerville was 3,118,according to a 2009 Trends in Somerville report.
Zasloff also said that it was time for other parts of Somerville to take on the affordable housing issue.
“At what point do we accept that Union Square has done its part with affordable housing?” he said.
Where It Gets Tricky
While only Boston and Cambridge have larger raw numbers of affordable housing, Somerville is well behind as a proportion of units, having 9.6 percent affordable housing while Cambridge scored 16.1 and Boston almost 20 percent, according to the Trends in Somerville: Housing Technical Report of Sept. 2009.
East Somerville has most of these units, but also has the largest rent burden in Somerville. In many areas of East Somerville, more than 50 percent of families pay more than 30 percent of their income into rent, and it is also where overcrowding is most common.
The areas with the highest percentage of affordable housing per number of units are Clarendon Hill, Ten Hills and the Inner Belt. In terms of public and private affordable housing buildings, Union Square has a lower raw total of units than Clarendon Hill.
The Business Side
Jerry Amaral, a bartender at PA’s Lounge in Union Square, said he didn’t have a problem with affordable housing as a whole, just the density and the future traffic problems that could come with a new affordable housing project.
“Parking is going to be a disaster,” Amaral said. “It’s crazy to have a 40 unit building right there in that area with no parking.”
He said he thought the building would be fine if it were about half as big, but that in its current form, he couldn’t support it. Amaral also said that he wasn’t sure how it would benefit the businesses of the area.
However, Mimi Graney, executive director of Union Square Main Streets, said that she thought the first floor retail space would be a boon.
“This particular proposal we like because we can keep an active first floor,” Graney said.
She said that despite the fact that the SCC was planning on using the first floor retail space as their offices the plan itself was a strong one for retail as a whole, and the SCC wouldn’t be there forever. She said what went above the retail space wasn’t necessarily the most important part of the plan for Union Square.
“Businesses come and go, and uses come and go, but the structure of the building is a thing that’s something that’s going to last the next hundred years,” she said. “Our interest really is: How can we get some quality construction that’s going to foster our long term vision for having an active business district?”
The June 6 meeting will cover traffic, parking and preliminary design options. It will be held at the Argenziano School at 6:30 p.m.