Union Square: A little pain amid gains

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / March 23, 2008

Entering Union Square on Somerville Avenue, you see the new home-goods store Grand, spacious and shiny. Then you see a muddy Komatsu machine blocking off a lane. The central traffic island is a hole fenced by Jersey barriers and orange netting.

The contrast speaks volumes about a neighborhood in transition.

The goal is to make Union Square "a destination," said Somerville Ward 3 Alderman Tom Taylor, and people and new shops have already started showing up. From 2005 through last year, commercial real estate transactions in the square totaled just over $4 million, said Mimi Graney, executive director of the Union Square Main Streets group. The opening of several stores will be celebrated on April 12.

Residents have enjoyed art exhibitions, minigolf, films with live musical accompaniment, artist-designed benches, and craft markets organized by the Somerville Arts Council's ArtsUnion project.

For now, these attractions coexist with construction crews. "But afterward, hopefully, it will be a really good environment to do business or live in," said Monica Lamboy, executive director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.

To turn the vision into a reality, there will be eyesores like ugly orange traffic barrels - evidence of the less romantic, but critically important, changes underground.

As part of the state Highway Department's $20.7 million Somerville Avenue reconstruction project, workers are installing a culvert around a 1.5-meter drainage pipe to prevent sewage from flowing into Boston Harbor after heavy rains, said Richard DeSantis, a MassHighway engineer.

Businesses and residents have complained to officials, mostly about pedestrian safety, access for people with disabilities, and lack of parking. Somerville's 311 hot line has received 69 calls about the project in the last year, said Lesley Delaney Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the city.

And then, there's the traffic. Waiting for a bus, Somerville resident Jessica Joy, 28, noted that public transit had slowed during construction. Cars on Somerville Avenue often back up from the square's main intersection to the Market Basket store about a quarter-mile away.

Carlo Maugini-Hansen owns both Riverside Motor Sports and a building on Somerville Avenue; he said officials hadn't kept promises to warn businesses of changes. People are avoiding Somerville Avenue, he said, "which means that the businesses that are there are losing their shirt."

In one case, construction and improvements clashed, literally.

"They ruined my bench!" lamented Kimo Griggs, who designed two wooden benches for the main intersection. Contractors accidentally smashed into one last summer, and the space it used to occupy is now empty.

There is good news ahead. DeSantis said the underground work will be finished on April 1.

However, the intersection will still look somewhat messy: MassHighway plans to hold off on sidewalks, final traffic patterns, and street furniture until the digging is done for the entire street. The scheduled completion date for the whole project is April 2010.

While changes burgeon underground, boosters pointed to two key (though dry-sounding) elements on the visible level to encourage people to come to a newly vibrant square: transportation and zoning.

The arrival of the Green Line - a spur from Lechmere Station - could reshape the square entirely.

Tracks could run on or under the east part of Somerville Avenue; proposed station locations include two sites on Prospect Street. The city is about to launch a state-funded transportation study to find ways to reduce congestion - possibly making some streets two-way. (DeSantis said that the Somerville Avenue substructure work would make any future transportation changes easier.)

And what will line those streets?

To mold the business mix, Union Square advocates are pushing zoning changes that would block new industrial uses, reduce parking-space requirements for storeowners, and allow developers to build taller. They also say they would preserve the historic look of the square -- eliciting Maugini-Hansen's comment, "What look?"

Last summer, Graney's group counted 275 trucks on Washington Street in less than three hours. Now she's working to redo the neighborhood's industrial character, and cited Grand as "the kind of changes we're looking to make." The former Champagne Glass building now houses the retailer on the ground floor and an architectural firm upstairs.

"The zoning we have today, it's hard for people to come in," explained Lamboy.

The zoning changes aren't a done deal, though: a proposal failed to get Board of Alderman approval last fall. Lamboy plans to bring a revised proposal to community meetings by May.

Lamboy's predecessor, James Kostaras, who left early last year, thought the delay in passing the zoning changes sent the wrong message. "That hasn't gone unnoticed in the development community," he said. "It's very important to keep the momentum."

Exactly where that momentum takes the city's isn't exactly clear. There's a lot in the works, and not all of it seems coordinated. Various officials pointed to other officials to explain one piece of the pie or another.

Lamboy chalked it up to the complexity of funding sources.

"We really do talk a lot," she said. In fact, on a March 6 walk around the square with a reporter, she ran into Graney, Griggs, and the director of the Somerville Arts Council.

As with any improvement project, there is some question whether a higher profile will reduce the ethnic diversity the square has long been known for.

Several new places - such as Grand and a pet boutique, Dogma and Catma Too - support Taylor's prediction that "gentrification is going to happen."

However, two storeowners who cater to immigrants foresee only positives. Luidja Gilles opened Fiesta Bakery, which specializes in Haitian cuisine, a year ago. She found the square "really diverse."

"More people come, more customers, more business," said Eduardo Cabrera, who's owned La Internacional Food Corp. for 19 years. "The city works very hard to make more [people] visit Union Square." Though the housing prices are high and rent a little expensive, he said, "the ethnic people like this section in Somerville."

Graney has been talking to banks about boosting lending, particularly for ethnic businesses. Also, "if the businesses are doing better, they're going to be able to afford the higher rents," she said.

Like Robert Rendón. After owning Taqueria La Mexicana for 13 years, he bought his building and expanded into the former Irish Eyes bar. He plans to rename the restaurant Carolina's Cantina (after his wife) and add a wider range of dishes.

He stood in the new space early this month, proudly looking at the pink and magenta walls and the sawdust on the floor. "We're going to change the square a little," he said. "The neighbors are happy."

Rendón hopes to open the new space at the end of the month.

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