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Union In Transition

Off Campus | December 15, 2014

The walk from McGrath Highway into Union Square highlights the recent and ongoing changes in the area. Before reaching the center, bustling and bright with Christmas lights, you must pass an ominous, boarded-up funeral home and a partially bulldozed parking lot. You’ll also pass, along the way, a series of starkly different storefronts. Run-down convenience stores and salons are stuck between upscale restaurants and cafes.

Each block is a juxtaposition of two worlds. Although many may not notice the mismatch, to an informed observer, Union Square screams gentrification.

For those living and working in Union Square, gentrification brings some beneficial changes to the area, but displacement is a pervasive worry exacerbated by the upcoming extension of the MBTA Green Line.

Gentrification is a hot-button term, but what exactly does it mean for a community like Union Square? Sociologist Ruth Glass, who coined the word, explains that gentrification occurs when the upper middle class infiltrates areas traditionally occupied by the working class. She writes, “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

Gentrification may have murky implications, but some of the things that come with it are good. As an area becomes gentrified, it typically becomes cleaner, safer, and invites increased economic activity. A propos the case of Union Square, Tufts Urban Planning Studies Professor Mark Chase—a neighborhood resident—explains that the square used to be a “car sewer,” acting like a pipe that merely pushed cars through.

Lately, it has undergone dramatic change, he explains. “It’s becoming a place where people will hang out and socialize, and I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “It’s really been in the last 10 to 15 years and due to the work of community.”

But of course, beneath the surface level benefits, gentrification negatively impact many residents.

“I think it’s important to separate gentrification from displacement. Gentrification is like the neighborhood getting better,” Chase explains. “Displacement is when people living there get pushed out. One, is good, the neighborhood is getting better. One is bad, like people who want to live there have to leave and get pushed out.”

While the debate over gentrification and its effects may rage on, displacement is already happening in Union Square and its implications are irrefutable. For one local business, Living Well, gentrification made living well wholly unsustainable. Steep rent increases forced it to close.

According to Tufts Urban Planning Studies Professor and Union Square resident Laurie Goldman, the “multi-business” sold goods primarily catered towards immigrants: overseas telephone calls and check-cashing services, along with various health drinks.

Unfortunately, Living Well is not an isolated incident.

“In the last six months, the rent has increased and three to four businesses have gone,” David Plunkett, owner of Union’s Somerville Grooves record store, says.

Jesse Farrell, manager at Hub Comics, echoes these sentiments. “A lot of small businesses have closed,” he says, “a furniture store; next to that there was a juice place and a couple Brazilian markets.”

The square is spotted with lots in limbo. There are far too many boarded-up and paper-covered windows leaving the dusty remains of a their dead businesses to settle on the floor until a replacement comes.

Goldberg explains that this exodus is due to rising rents. She says, “Some of the small businesses, practically all those in the heart of Union Square near Bow Street, have had rents go up by 50 percent, which is a large amount for a businesses with a small profit margin.”

Data shows the harsh realities of these rising rents. A report released last May by students of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy found that when asked, “What would the impact be on your business if rent were increased by 20%?” only 10 out of 19 Union Square businesses “expressed the possibility to afford it.” Even worse, when asked what the impact would be if the rent increased by 40%, only one business said that it would be able to stay in Union Square.

Not every business is struggling, though. Andrea Morton, who runs an architecture firm, explains, “So far my costs to own a business in Union have been stable.” But there is always a worry for the future. She says, “As word continues to spread about how great this area is, I am concerned that I will be displaced by someone who can pay more.”

Rent increase and displacement is far from contained to commercial spaces. “Rents have increased astronomically … my own rent has gone up precipitously over the past few years,” Goldman explains. “People are being displaced. I know many people who can no longer afford their rents and have had to leave Somerville because of that.”

Partially driving the rising cost of rent for local businesses and residents alike is the pressure of the expected Green Line extension into Union Square in 2017.

In 1985, the MBTA opened a Red Line station in Davis Square, transforming the territory from one that was once called “Slummerville”—a colloquial term historically used to describe Somerville-area dilapidation—into the bustling commercial area it is today. However, the gentrification of Davis Square has been costly. Rent continues to rise, displacing once comfortable families and businesses.

Now, the impact the Green Line will have seems unclear.

“Traditionally, it’s really hard to tell what impact subways or trains will have on an area,” Chase explains. “Some agree it should be good for business … But there is some risk that it will be so good that rents go up and some businesses may not be able to afford rent.”

On one hand, more people will be able to get from Union Square to work in other neighborhoods, and more people will be able to get to Union Square to support the area economically. However, as increased accessibility makes the neighborhood more desirable, the cost of living will likely rise. A report for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that property within walking distance from a T stop increase in value by 15% to 25% over the next few decades.

With both commercial and residential property rents already increasing, the Green Line seems an imminent threat to an already growing problem.

It would be easy to say that Union Square is a lost cause to gentrification, displacement, and upscale development. But it seems the truth is more complicated—there may be hope for preserving Union’s current residents, businesses, and culture.

Goldman explains, “We are trying to say, ‘Let’s have development without displacement.’ There is going to be some displacement inevitably, because those are market forces. But how can we mitigate that?”

Union United, a community organization made up of residents, businesses, and activists, has set out to do just that.

Currently, Union Square is being redeveloped under a 20-year plan proposed in 2012 that, according to the city’s website, outlines “key actions to bring Union Square into the 21st century as a vibrant downtown area supporting commercial, residential, and civic goals through improvements to transit, infrastructure and public realm.”

With Union Square Station Associates (US2) recently named the developer, Union United is working to get community benefits incorporated into the plans.

Union United writes on their website, “We believe that we can have development without displacement, but it requires the community to play an active role in the decision-making process…We believe the best way for local stakeholders to engage in the process is through a community benefits agreement.”

A community benefits agreement (CBA) is an agreement between a developer and a group, typically a community organization, that promises to address particular issues. In the binding agreement, both the developer and the community organization agree to support each other in the development process.

According to Goldman, the group is currently working to translate a set of principles, like affordable housing, commitment to local hiring, supporting local businesses, to preservation of green space, into a CBA that would be endorsed by the developer, US2, and the city.

Community organizations like Union United can work to combat gentrification and displacement and even use it to benefit the community, but it’s clear that they face a significant challenge.

With inevitable change coming to Union, Professor Chase asks, “Who are the people that you want to preserve that make Somerville great? And what are the things that you are willing to accept to change? And can you make it change in a way that people are happy with the change and not feeling sad that they lost a piece of their past? I think it’s a tricky thing.”

All photos by Greta Jochem.