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Union Square affordable housing plan draws heavy fire

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2012
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An emerging resident group and the leaders of the Somerville Community Corporation are at loggerheads over a development of 40 units of affordable housing proposed for Washington Street in Union Square.

If built as currently designed, the $12 million to $15 million project calls for the demolition of the former Boys & Girls Club and the construction of a five-story mixed use apartment block with ground-level retail space below units for 40 middle- and low-income individuals and families. There would be a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units.

Leaders of Union Square Rising have said they have collected more than 200 signatures of residents and business owners in wards 2 and 3, calling for a different use of the former Pope School.

“There is a potential for a tipping point for the community going in the wrong direction,’’ said Zac Zasloff, a group founder.

“I want a community where there is a lot of foot traffic, walking around, spending money during the day, people eating lunch. By creating a large pocket of low-income housing, it doesn’t address any of those issues, [by] just putting more people there.’’

Danny LeBlanc, executive director of the Somerville Community Corporation, has dismissed that assertion, and said in a phone interview that his group is interested in one thing: Working with the community to build more affordable housing.

“We’re in a little bit of a race against time,’’ LeBlanc said, referring to the advent of the Green Line extension, which is expected to raise rents in the area. “If we don’t succeed in getting a larger percent of the overall housing stock designated as affordable, that opportunity will be lost and what we have is what we have.’’

Under current guidelines, an individual must make no more than $40,500 to qualify for the housing. A family of four can earn up to $57,780 to be considered for the units.

LeBlanc said his group purchased the former school building in February for $1.5 million, and plans to tear down the existing three-story brick structure.

“No one wants to be in this fight, but we were going to be walked on and railroaded,’’ said Zasloff, who owns a condominium unit in a building next to the development site. He said he founded Union Square Rising after he saw a need to organize among residents who opposed the development. “Finally,’’ he said, “someone has stood up to the SCC.’’

The resident group also has criticized the community corporation for its development tactics, saying the group has targeted Union Square as a corner of the city to concentrate affordable housing, and that the Washington Street proposal is too large and lacks the parking required to support the number of units proposed. For the 40 units, planners have set aside 33 spaces, according to the SCC.

In recent weeks, the debate has taken on more polarized and political tones. Union Square Rising said members have been ostracized for opposing a development that includes no market-rate apartments. Two supporters said they were called racists at a recent meeting; the same two blasted LeBlanc as being part of the “1 percent.’’ (He was paid $83,436 in 2009, the latest year for which records were available, which includes more than $22,392 in health benefits. LeBlanc said in a recent phone interview that his base salary is now roughly $90,000.)

Zasloff also has criticized the community corporation’s dealings with community members, saying the group is acting more like a profit-driven private developer, snubbing the public’s input as it barrels toward a project that stands to bring the nonprofit more than $1 million in fees,

The development is estimated to cost $12 million to $15 million, LeBlanc said. The SCC stands to receive 10 percent of the final cost through a combination of low-income tax credits and city, state, federal, and private funds, according to the Union Square Rising website.

LeBlanc said he felt that the Union Square Rising group disagrees with the essential mission of the corporation. “In nonprofit accounting, it’s not called profit,’’

LeBlanc said. “It’s a recognition that a nonprofit like ours needs money to function. It pays the professional staff that do these projects. What someone may look at as profit, we see as seed for another affordable housing development.’’

LeBlanc said his group has attempted to work with Union Square Rising, and after several meetings the height of the proposed building was reduced from 54 to 50 feet at its tallest facade. But the concession wasn’t enough.

Last week, Union Square Rising said it picketed a June 6 meeting at the Argenziano School after the group said it was promised a top slot to address the crowd, but was denied its speaking opportunity at the last minute. Zasloff said his group declined to attend and chose to protest outside, citing the tenor of Somerville Community Corporation’s tactics and the unexpected change in plans.

LeBlanc said he offered to give the group time after 8 p.m. to speak, but the advocates said that the slot was too late, and would come after most of the meeting would have ended. After he was told of the change, Ward 3 Alderman Thomas Taylor said he decided not to attend as well.

“To me that wasn’t acceptable, and I decided I wouldn’t participate,’’ Taylor said.

LeBlanc said he sought to keep the gathering focused on the project at hand.

Union Square Rising members “were welcome to come to the meeting, but we also made it clear that we were going to discuss ideas about the design," LeBlanc said. "We weren't going to have a pro-con discussion on affordable housing, because we’ve done that three times before.’’

Now Taylor said he is planning to sponsor a separate forum at the end of the month at which both sides will have an opportunity to make their pitch, before the community corporation submits final plans to the city for permitting.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said it was too early to decide the project’s merits, especially before the Planning Board and city officials can review the specifics.

“It would be inappropriate to prejudge that public process, especially since the SCC has yet to submit a formal proposal,” Curtatone said. “Once they do, our planning staff will be able to undertake a formal analysis of whether the project meets Union Square’s zoning requirements. SCC is well aware of the standards this project has to meet, and I assume they will continue to work with the community to gather input and to put their best foot forward.”

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

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