After weeks spent at an impasse over a plan by the Somerville Community Corporation to build 40 units of affordable housing in Union Square that sparked outcry from residents, the two sides have agreed to enter a preliminary mediation process, the city said Monday.
At the suggestion of Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, members of Union Square Rising, which formed to oppose the housing development, and the Somerville Community Corporation, will work with staff from the Consensus Building Institute to hash out their differences in the coming days. Somerville Community Corporation seeks to build the five-story mixed use facility at 181 Washington St. in the heart of Union Square.
"To sit back and do nothing would be a failure of leadership on my part," Curtatone said in a phone interview. "If people are willing to engage in the conversation we stand to lose nothing."
Zac Zasloff, a founding member of Union Square Rising, has said that the development is out of scale with the surrounding structures and could tip the neighborhood's overall character. According to Zasloff, the group counts more than 200 residents and business owners who have signed a petition objecting to the development.
Zasloff and others have said they are frustrated with the tone and tenor of a half dozen previous community meetings called by the community corporation, saying the agency has attempted to railroad the neighborhood into accepting its development.
Danny LeBlanc, executive director of the community corporation, contends that Union Square will become unaffordable for middle- and low-income residents with the coming of a new Green Line station as part of that line's planned extension through Somerville. LeBlanc said building affordable housing when ever possible is essential to keeping at-risk residents in their homes long-term.
Plans call for ground-level retail space that would be topped by four floors of 1- 2- and 3-bedroom apartments. 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. The SCC purchased the space in February for $1.5 million.
The preliminary mediation process also obviated a July 11 forum scheduled by Ward 3 Alderman Thomas F. Taylor, where the two groups were expected to make their pitch to residents in a neutral setting.
In the coming days, staffers from the Cambridge-based consulting firm will conduct a round of preliminary interviews with members of both groups to identify the potential for common ground, and to determine if a fully involved mediation process could be successful, said Patrick Field, Managing Director for the consultant's group. The first phase is expected to take weeks, after which the mediators will issue an assessment to continue the process or halt conversations because the sides are too far apart. If the process advances to a full mediation, results could take months to return, Curtatone and Field said.
The city has employed the firm in similar land-use disputes before, and will foot the bill for its services, said Tom Champion, a city spokesman. The precise cost of the first phase of discussions was not available, but Curtatone said a similar contract in the past cost the city about $1,600.
"We are one, trying to understand what the issues are as people frame them or understand them," said Field, who has more than 15 years in the mediation field. "We want to hear it from people directly."
Although Field said CBI will be employed by the city, his group is bound by professional ethics to remain completely nonpartisan. He also cautioned residents that any outcome would be nonbinding, and that the project would still have to go through the city's zoning process.
The mediation is a detente of sorts for the groups' members, some of whom had exchanged harsh words in the past, a fact that spurred Curtatone to get the city involved, he said.
Our charge here is to do our best to bring people together to have constructive dialogue, and that's in the public interest," Curtatone said. "I'm hopeful it's ripe for mediation. If it's not, we've done our due diligence."