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Somerville mayor unveils Union Square redevelopment plan

Posted by Matt Byrne  August 17, 2012 10:02 AM

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Making way for the Green Line Extension, the City of Somerville Thursday unveiled an urban renewal plan for Union Square that proponents say could bring thousands of jobs, hundreds of units of new housing, and the promise of prosperity for the neighborhood.

If approved by the Board of Aldermen, the plan gives city officials power to offer for purchase to private developers -- or for taking via eminent domain -- seven pieces of property valued at roughly $30 million.

To see the plan, click here.

According to the plan, most areas designated to be condemned comprise light industry, automotive, and other uses that have been removed from the area's zoning laws. Replacing the building guidelines is a new zoning code that swaddles the proposed Green Line station in high-density, mixed-use parcels.

"It's not about who owns and runs these businesses. Its about the highest and best uses of these parcels of land," said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone at a press briefing Wednesday.

"The law allows for an open, transparent process. People will be made whole for their property."

At the heart of the plans lies the Green Line Extension and the proposed station stop at Union Square. Curtatone and others have pinned their vision of the city on the coming of the trolley line, saying with it will come jobs, development dollars, and a better quality of life.

Codifying that commitment earlier this month, Curtatone announced an agreement with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for the city to purchase the first of the seven development blocks and give a portion of it to the T for the train station, spurring the line's progress.

The transaction is expected to cost $8 million, cash the city already has budgeted to spend in its capital plan, the mayor said. Located north of Prospect Street and containing the contaminated Kiley Barrel location that the city already owns, the acquisition of additional privately owned property is estimated to cost $3.7 million, with the relocation of businesses and residents costing another $800,000. Curatone said $500,000 is slated to prepare the site for construction, with $1 million held in reserve for overruns.

The remaining $2 million will be put toward an engineer's evaluation of what infrastructure improvements are needed in the entire 117-acre renewal zone, work that could cost $30 million in the future.

"What we're doing here will catalyze the rest of the development in the area," Curtatone said.

He compared the city's initial investment in Union Square to the $25 million the city borrowed to install basic infrastructure at Assembly Square, where work began this spring to construct thousands of units of housing and a complex of restaurants, outlet stores, a movie theater, and retail stores.

For approval, the Board of Aldermen must first sign off on the 146-page document, which then goes to the state's Department of Housing and Community Development for approval. Recognition by the state will give the Somerville Redevelopment Authority power to administer the acquisitions, which officials said will likely be through private deals, and not eminent domain.

While the Redevelopment Authority will have the option of taking land through eminent domain, the city said it hopes for private developers to take the lead and cut deals with landlords and homeowners.

The project's long-term cost to the taxpayers has not been set, and instead will depend on a host of factors, officials said. The first phase, encompassing the north of Prospect block, is expected to cost $8 million to develop. Improvements to roadways, traffic management, and to underlying water and sewer piping for the entire district is pegged at roughly $30 million. Relocation costs for all businesses and residents are estimated near $5.8 million.

In all, the cost of the land proposed for taking is rough $27 million, but that figure is tied to appraisal values, which can vary from market rates. But if the city's planners are right, those costs will be swallowed by development firms eager for a piece of the city's future.

At-large Alderman William White pointed out that under state law, owners of land taken by a city via eminent domain have the right to sue the city, if the owners feel their property was under-valued.

White said that because the city is administering the program directly, there is far more exposure to the risk of a suit than in Assembly Square, where Federal Realty Investment Trust bought the land early in the development process. Without a private developer already designated, there is no firewall between the city's plans for development and legal action that could drain city coffers, White said.

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.

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