Green Line extension brings concerns for housing availability in Somerville

Over the next five years, the Green Line will extend into Somerville, ending on College Avenue. Two of the planned stops — at Washington Street and in Union Square — are scheduled to open in 2017. City planners are discussing the changes, analyzing the ways in which the plan’s advantages and disadvantages will be addressed.

“It’s remarkable to me to … take a look through historical accounts or historical transportation studies and then realize that the Green Line extension has been planned for literally decades,” Brad Rawson, senior planner at the Somerville Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, said.

The introduction of the Green Line to Somerville is expected to bring vast economic expansion, with a projected 17,300 new jobs and 3,600 residential units to be created by 2030, according to a Dec. 5, 2013 Boston Globe article.

In addition these economic benefits, the Green Line expansion also presents many problems of redevelopment, rising housing prices and shifting demographics. According to a report cited in a Feb. 12 article on Boston.com, housing prices in Somerville areas are predicted to rise as much as 67 percent with the Green Line extension. This creates a problem for current residents, as well as those looking to move to the area.

According to Dr. Justin Hollander, associate professor in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) Department, the desirability of living near a T stop can account for such dramatic increases in rent.

“The demand is just really high to live walking distance to really any mass transit in the Boston area,” Hollander said.

Hollander also commented on the changes in demographics that may come with the T extension.

“The changes that are happening now and that are going to happen are not value-neutral,” Hollander said. “As a result, there are a lot of groups that have historically lived in some of these neighborhoods that are not going to anymore. East Somerville in particular and part of Union Square are very diverse. And that’s a value that a lot of people hold really dearly.”

In determining the city’s strategy to avoid population changes, planners have looked to the extension of the Red Line to Davis Square from the 1980s.

According to Rawson, the beginnings of the Red Line extension were similar to those of the Green Line extension today. Community members gathered and fought for the stop in Davis Square and eventually won over a stop in Arlington, where an extension from Porter Square was originally planned.

“Things like Statue Park and Seven Hills Park and Davis Square Plaza were built as a result of that plan,” Rawson said. “The community path extension that was built is a result of that plan. […] Many of the existing historic commercial properties were refurbished with public assistance as a result of that plan. So we got many things right back in Davis Square in the early 80s.”

Despite the successful acquisition of the Davis Square stop, the expansion also serves as a cautionary tale to planners.

“When you look at the demographics, you see that the neighborhoods around Davis Square are disproportionately wealthier than the rest of Somerville,” Rawson said. “They’re disproportionately whiter than the rest of Somerville, and they have far fewer children than the rest of Somerville”

Joseph Sacchi, a Tufts UEP graduate student working on a project for the Somerville Community Corporation as part of a UEP Field Projects course, said he was hopeful but wary of the results of the Green Line extension.

“I think the city’s done a good job in terms of planning comprehensively and looking forward,” he said. “I think they’re planning some more contingencies, […] but whether that will ultimately be enough to preserve the current character of the neighborhood is just something that kind of remains to be seen.”

Sacchi also warned against losing sight of the main objectives of the upcoming plans.

“I think the city and just community … should really keep an eye to what impact it allows on what [characteristics] people already like about Somerville, so … [they] can improve it without changing its character fundamentally,” he said.

Planners are also looking at current tools and advice from other communities for ideas. According to Rawson, there are four tools in particular that they plan to use to fight changes in demographics and maintain diversity in Somerville. The first, called inclusionary zoning or inclusionary housing, requires developers of new apartment buildings to reserve 12.5 percent of the units for tenants with low or moderate income. This plan is particularly targeted towards new developments in Union Square. 12

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