Future plans for Union Square include more housing, green space, and improving traffic, according to Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.

Credit: Jon Olszewski / WGBH

In Somerville, High Anxiety Over Eminent Domain

May 12, 2014

If Somerville has a spiritual center, it’s probably Union Square— a bustling neighborhood where traffic is dense, swanky new businesses share space with gritty throwbacks, and the crowd runs the ethnic and socioeconomic gamut.

But in 10 years, Union Square won’t look the way it does today.

“I hope you see a neighborhood that’s even more thriving and eclectic and edgy than it is now,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone says. “But with even more housing, more people living in the center square, that’s certainly a safer place to bike and walk.”

With the long-awaited MBTA Green Line extension coming to Somerville, Curtatone sees an opportunity to push the city’s transformation even further. He wants to rebuild Union Square in a way that smoothes out the neighborhood’s rough edges (limited housing, an abundance of concrete) and creates new strengths (green space, more humane traffic flow).

That may sound like a complete metamorphosis. But Curtatone insists he can realize that vision while leaving Union Square’s fundamental character intact.

“The creativity, originality, history, the funky freakiness of Union Square that we really love, our soul--we don’t want to lose that,” Curtatone says.”

But Curtatone is prepared to play public policy hardball to facilitate Union Square’s reinvention. If necessary, Somerville will use eminent domain to take certain parcels slated for redevelopment—paying the owners fair market value and assuming control of the property, whether or not they actually want to sell.

The city has already taken several parcels along the path of the planned Green Line extension. And it may take others - not to extend  the 'T,' but to facilitate Union Square's broader re-invention.

That scenario has some of Union Square’s best-known businesses fearful for their future—and the neighborhood’s.

“Be careful what wish for,” says Ricky DiGiovanni, the owner of Ricky’s Flower Market. “Because if you want something squeaky clean, and too polished, and maybe not as authentic--maybe something cookie cutter--I’m not sure that’ll work here.”

For 25 years, Ricky’s market has been an isolated island of greenery in Union Square a rare splash of greenery. But it occupies one of several parcels slated for redevelopment and possible seizure—a prospect DiGiovanni dreads.

“Twenty-five years, I’ve spilled blood on this place here,” he says. “My heart, my everything. So to uproot and move, I don’t think that’s a possibility.”

He’s not the only one feeling anxious.

José Garcia and a partner opened Ebi Sushi three years ago. Now after a slow start, business is brisk.

“Union Square has become a food destination for many people,” Garcia says. “I like the neighborhood here. All the customers we have, they are regulars.”

But if Ebi’s landlord balks at selling to whichever developer the city chooses to work with—or, conversely, refuses to re-invest in the building in a way the city deems sufficient—Somerville could seize the property outright, and Ebi might have to move.

“We put over $200,000 into this business,” Garcia says. “It took two years build this rest. Now we’re doing successful—and two, three years later, we have to leave? “

It’s worth noting that Curtatone is a fan of both Ricky’s and Ebi Sushi. What’s more, the mayor has stressed that he wants businesses that make Union Square better to stay put—and that he’d rather not use eminent domain to hasten redevelopment.

But if he has to, he will.

“Eminent domain can be a useful tool if you do it right,” he says. “In many cases, it should only be used as a last resort. But in many cases, it’ll also help us repaint the canvas that was drafted a long time ago. “

Even if some people like that canvas the way it is.

Who gets to decide which businesses are good for the neighborhood, and which ones aren't? How does eminent domain work? Former Boston Redevelopment head Peter Meade joined Greater Boston to explain how it works. 

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