Neighborhood to advise Somerville on developer-funded benefits

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Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, September 2017
 
Taking a cue from the local committees that recommend the allocation of Community Preservation Act funds, Somerville is creating a structure for a neighborhood council to advise the Board of Aldermen on how to spend “community benefits” funding provided by the developer of a $1 billion redevelopment plan in Union Square.
 
The mayor’s office has proposed creating a citywide Community Benefits Committee that would collect public benefit contributions requested of developers in transformative developments in Union Square, Assembly Square and other neighborhoods. The contributions would be used to fund programs that address displacement and community needs, with recommendations going to the Board of Aldermen for approval.
 
The city would then encourage the development of neighborhood councils that would advise the citywide committee, providing more specific input on the particular needs of each neighborhood.
 
“Union Square is ahead of the game because we’ve been working with them and they’ve been motivated,” said Tom Galligani, the city’s economic development director, who cited groups including Union United, Union Square Neighbors and Union Square Main Streets.
 
Those neighborhood groups are beginning to organize into a single Union Square Neighborhood Council that would represent the community, Galligani said.
 
“We envision that these self-organizing neighborhood councils could form throughout the city based on emerging issues in those neighborhoods or in response to development,” he said. “Our requirement is that they need to be democratic and have some sort of election process, and they need to be representative.”
 
The groups have been meeting every two weeks as they work out a process, with the goal of an election process this fall for an initial interim board of directors.
 
Ward 3 Alderman Bob McWatters, who represents Union Square on the Board of Aldermen along with Ward 2 Alderman Maryann Heuston, said that the board has yet to act on the administration’s proposed community benefits ordinance that would create the hub-and-spoke framework outlined by Galligani because it wants to allow the Union Square community to first establish bylaws for its neighborhood council.
 
“I think it’s terrific,” he said. “Although the process right now is a little slow because there’s some disagreement, which is fine, I think it’s healthy because the community is trying to hash this out.
 
“Once they can come up with an agreement on the bylaws, they can set the process and put the process forward to get a neighborhood group or council. I think it’s terrific and healthy that residents in the community can be at the table and have a say in community benefits.”
 
Union Square Station Associates, known as US2, was selected in 2014 as the master developer for the city’s revitalization plan for the neighborhood and signed a covenant with the city this past April. Along with contributions for the planned Union Square Green Line extension station and infrastructure upgrades, the covenant requires US2 to negotiate a community benefits agreement through a neighborhood council.
 
The city has run multiple community-based processes over the past few years around Union Square, including a neighborhood planning process and the formation of a city-appointed Civic Advisory Committee.
 
A process facilitated by LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors resulted in a report that identified priorities for community benefits as Union Square is redeveloped. The process was also the genesis for the idea of a place-based entity that would manage public benefits generated from the project, implement the identified priorities, or manage events and programming in the district, according to Galligani.
 
Inspired by a citywide group created in Cambridge to manage a public benefits fund under an agreement with MIT, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and his administration pursued a citywide approach to public benefits alongside the neighborhood councils that would advise the city.
 
For more information, contact Somerville Economic Development Director Tom Galligani at (617) 625-6600, ext. 2531, or  tgalligani@somervillema.gov.