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Disunion over future of square

Posted by Marcia Dick  September 24, 2010 10:33 AM

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Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Coming into Union Square down Prospect Street, you can't miss Ricky's Flower Market. Offering flowers and tomatoes all summer and Christmas trees in fall, the indoor/outdoor shop is a community mainstay.

But is it a bright spot or a roadblock? In Somerville, the perspective you take makes all the DIFference.

The city planning department's proposed District Improvement Financing project has shocked even fans of the improvements planned for Union Square, such as a Green Line stop, reduced truck traffic, and improved storm drains. What sounded like yet another unimportant economic development meeting Sept. 15 introduced a 30-year plan specifying properties the city wants to either buy or take by eminent domain — including Ricky's.

For a second parking garage, the city plans to buy or take the popular Reliable Market, Somerville's main source of kimchee.

"That was a surprise," said Alderwoman Maryann Heuston. "There was an actual list at that meeting and there were actual property values … I think it's probably one of the most significant undertakings of the city and the board in the past several years."

The district is huge, spanning Somerville Ave. all the way to the Cambridge line, Boynton Yards by East Cambridge, and the Inner Belt abutting Charlestown - about 450 acres, or 20 percent of the city. The Union Square portion is by far the most specific.

A DIF is a funding mechanism that allows a city to raise money for improvement projects based on future increases in property taxes - "a advance appropriation in anticipation of new revenues," said Kathleen McCabe, a Boston planner who worked on the state's first-ever DIF in 2005 for a neighborhood in Worcester. After the Somerville aldermen and state Economic Assistance Coordinating Council pass the DIF, any changes require separate approval.

The proposed Somerville plan wouldn't quite pave paradise and put up a parking lot: The garages would be underground with street-level retail, said city economic development director Rob May. After construction, current businesses "could potentially slide back in."

Ricky DiGiovanni said he hadn't received the city's letter about the hearing. "We understand what's going on — the T's coming into Union Square. Great. We're happy about some of the changes," he said. And he wants to be there, in his two-decades-and-counting spot, to enjoy them.

Informing the community "Obviously could've been handled better," said Union Square Main Streets board member Jim McGinnis, who was still trying to wrap his head around the proposal.

Through the last several years of intensive planning, city staff have made the case that even unpopular changes — zoning that encourages much taller buildings, a streetscape that pulls the plaza away from bars and restaurants — are necessary for long-term financial health and affordability. But the DIF's specifics raise the question: Are the city planners trying to exert too much top-down control?

When you look at Union Square as a set of anonymous building blocks, it's impossible not to start questioning why this plot and not that. Why Ricky's for the garage, not the suburban-style Dunks across the street? Well, Ricky's is next to property the city already owns, May said. "It would make sense to consolidate its holdings."

Instead of the Reliable, why not take the far less popular Goodyear tire shop next door? Or the barren Target lot, which would reduce traffic snarls in the square center? Target's too far away, May said.

(For that matter, it seems odd that a set of plans based on maximizing the Green Line requires two new parking garages, especially when studies show, McGinnis said, "there's plenty of parking in Union Square" already. May said it was more efficient to have central facilities.)

In fact, rather than specifying garage sites from on high, why not simply put the call out that the city needs space, with incentives for property owners, and see who responds?

"I think that it's always dangerous" when cities over-plan, McGinnis said. "I think their focus has to be on basic infrastructure."

The city's role in the DIF goes beyond that. The draft calls for a "negotiated sale" of several properties along the Prospect St. corridor, including a radiator lot and a scrap metal yard, for the city to re-sell for commercial use.

During zoning hearings two years ago, planners argued that the private market would solve this problem over time: Developers would buy newly valuable lots. May argued now that the strip was more likely to find a buyer if it had one owner instead of several; "the city's already a major landholder in that block;" and the properties may need environmental remediation.

And it's crucial, May said, to prettify the walkway from the T to the heart of the square. "Imagine it's July 2005, you've just arrived at the new Green Line station… I turn to my right and I look at that," he said. People who already frequent the square, of course, are used to it. Some know that one of those buildings houses a flourishing young music space.

It starts to seem as though the city's commitment to future patrons and businesses overrides any commitment to existing residents and regulars — who would probably prefer to walk five minutes from a garage if it meant keeping the flower shop and Asian grocery.

The city wants "to have a viable square, which it is right now," DiGiovanni said. "What are they looking for, to have CVS move in?"

A double vision pervades the entire DIF. From one perspective. Union Square is decaying properties, floods, and unmet commercial opportunity. From another, it's a thriving social scene with a farmers market, festivals, and housing prices that go up and up and up.

Heuston thinks it's time to "put the reins on" to make sure specifics come from current residents and businesses, not the planning department. "I'm going to be here in 20 years. I'll be an old lady, but I'm going to be here," she said. Though the official public comment period ends Sept. 29, she's opening up the Oct. 6 Finance Committee meeting to the community.

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