A Blight on the Hill: The Green Line Extension

The Green Line Extension, which once looked to be dead in the water, is back on track tonight. WBZ’s David Wade is here now with the details. David? 

Yeah, Paula, when projected cost overruns hit $1 billion  back in 2015, extending the Green Line into Somerville and Medford really looked like an impossible dream. But today, Governor Baker and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone helped to break ground on that project. The plan calls for seven new light-rail stations, replacing or rehabbing eight bridges, and creating a new pedestrian bike path. The extension will run more than four and a half miles from a relocated Lechmere stop through Somerville all the way to College Avenue.

[00:39] I think my strongest suit is my commentary, like, my ad-lib commentary.

Yeah, agreed, we’re here. Full send.

Abigail Fisch (AF): I’m Abigail Alpern Fisch.

Rachel Carp (RC): And I’m Rachel Carp.

And we are your producers for this episode of A Blight on the Hill, the Tufts Daily’s investigative podcast that explores the ethical consequences of Tufts’ pursuit of prosperity and prestige. [1:00]

Special thanks to Connor Dale, Alexander Rowe, Austin Clementi, Joe Walsh and Emily Burke, whose reporting on the Green Line Extension (GLX) was referenced in this podcast.

This episode of the Blight will focus on the community impact of the Green Line Extension, or GLX project, into Somerville and Medford. We’ll bring in some of the Daily’s reporting on the Green Line Extension, and discuss who will be most affected by the changing neighborhood. [1:24]

The GLX is an effort to strengthen transit in communities, as well as reduce pollution in the area from greenhouse gas emissions of cars and buses. 

AF: Previous attempts and plans to extend the Green Line have been in the works since the 1990s, but the state of Massachusetts had to pause these plans due to a spike in projected costs. In order to secure federal funding, the project had to be re-designed and scaled-back. 

Finally in 2015, the GLX was approved to receive a grant from the federal government with its updated cost estimate of $1.3 billion. In 2018, that price limit was reset but proposals for development are capped at $2.3 billion, split between state and federal funding. Construction for the project began at the end of March 2018

RC: The GLX project could be a really great thing. It represents greater investment in public transportation, specifically for areas historically cut off from mass transit. [2:23] However, unintended negative consequences of rising rents and land values threaten to displace low- and moderate-income residents of the area.  

This displacement could damage the social and cultural diversity of Somerville and Medford. Developers and city officials will need to plan very carefully in order to ensure that benefits of the extended transport are shared by all, and keep rent reasonable to retain the social fabric of our community. [2:47]

AF: The new stops to be built for the GLX include Union Square, Lowell Street and Washington Street, which aim to extend transportation options to serve East Somerville, a part of the city with many residents lacking access to diverse transportation options. Such an extension will dramatically improve transit mobility for residents and businesses, and bolster municipal finances with new tax revenue. However, community members in Medford and Somerville have raised concerns about rising rents pushing out low-income residents currently living near the new Green Line stations. 

A 2014 report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Massachusetts projected that rents near the planned GLX stations could rise by as much as 67% as GLX construction is completed. 

In order to ensure current residents in the community are set up to benefit from the development, community organizing in Somerville over the last several years has sought to ensure that residents win community benefits that coincide with the GLX’s development. 

Most recently, the organizing campaign Union United has achieved a community benefits agreement between the Union Square Neighborhood Council and developers to ensure that the Union Square redevelopment process, including the addition of a Green Line stop, results in tangible benefits — not displacement — for the Union Square community. 

Previous conversations between the Daily and Rafael Mares, executive director of The Neighborhood Developers, a community development corporation in Chelsea, Everett and Revere, stated that concerns about housing affordability and rising costs should not deny efforts to bring mass transit options to neighborhoods of all income levels. Rather, greater attention must be given to prevent the displacement of already existing residents.

Elie Levine (EL): I’m Elie Levine, and I’m the host for A Blight on the Hill this semester. Here’s some more context on the history of the extension. 

The project has been going on for a long time, and from the outside, it definitely seems to be moving slowly. It seems like there hasn’t been too much progress from the time the trees were cut down on Boston Ave. to what we’re seeing now. 

Though there’s a lot to do in a short period of time, those working on the project remain optimistic that it will be completed by its projected due date. Passenger service on the route is supposed to begin in December of 2021, within two years from now. The line is designed to run alongside the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line and the Lowell Commuter Rail Line, and the Medford branch of the extension will add a stop at the intersection of College Ave. and Boston Ave. This means that all three branches of Tufts’ campuses will be connected, from the main campus in Medford/Somerville to the Tufts Health Sciences campus in Chinatown to the SMFA. Another strong selling point — having all experienced the perpetual slowness of the MBTA — is that this Green Line Extension claims that it will run faster than other lines. [5:24]

The Daily’s previous conversations with Tufts faculty members suggest that the university is more or less in full support of the project. 

Rocco DiRico, Tufts’ director of community relations, says that the project has already strengthened Tufts’ relationships with Medford, Somerville and the MBTA

DiRico believes that the College/Boston Ave. stop will meet the needs of [Tufts’] students, faculty, staff, neighbors and visitors. [5:47]

Mark Chase, lecturer of urban and environmental policy and planning, also sees the new Green Line stop as a positive extension of Tufts’ campus and the Medford/Somerville community. Recognizing the argument that the Green Line will likely spike area housing costs, Chase thinks that the mitigated need for cars and rideshares will help make up for that cost. 

Tufts also says that their addition of more than 435 student beds in the past three years will help compensate for the lack of  affordable housing because students will theoretically have more on-campus housing options. 

With that said, there are also concerns about traffic and accessibility. With all the construction, multiple bridges in Somerville are closed, which makes for detours and congested streets. And, many are worried about the inaccessibility of the new GLX stops, which will only serve to further alienate the most vulnerable members of the community. [6:33]

EL: John Dalton, program manager of the Green Line Extension, wasn’t available in person, but GLX Deputy Program Manager of Stakeholder Engagement Terrence P. McCarthy sent me these responses by email. I asked him what updates he could provide on the construction of the Green Line since the summer.

What construction challenges has the project faced this fall? [6:51]

Rachel Carp reading as Terrence P. McCarthy (TM): Working within an active rail corridor, which supports both commuter rail and freight traffic, is a major challenge for GLX. Maintaining acceptable levels of service on existing rail lines places serious restrictions and interruption on day-to-day activities of the contractor. This challenge is not uncommon for active rail line work and it was anticipated by project planners. In order to meet this challenge — and ensure the greatest level of cost-certainty and a successful, on-budget, and on-time project delivery — a 24-hour work schedule was proposed for the project. Thus, GLX has increased its level of nighttime work and construction often continues around the clock during the week and on the weekends in certain areas. [7:31] 

EL: What targets in the construction timeline have not yet been met?

TM: As mentioned above, the immediate schedule milestone we are focused on is the Commuter Rail Track shift to the east side of the MBTA Lowell Commuter Rail Alignment. Once this shift is complete, our contractors will have an uninterrupted, linear work zone stretching from north of College Avenue in Medford to the Lechmere area in East Cambridge and back up to Union Square in Somerville. This will enable the construction of west side walls and utilities as well as the new power and signal facilities, Green Line stations, and track. [8:03]

[8:20] EL: Hi, I’m one of your hosts, Elie Levine. And I’m here with Connor Dale, who has done plenty of reporting on the GLX for an article that came out at the beginning of the semester.  Thank you so much for being here, Connor. So, based on the reporting that you’ve done, and did this summer, where did the GLX project stand at that point?

Connor Dale (CD): Right. So as of the summer workers were relocating a set of existing commuter rail tracks, and that was in order to make way for the extended Green Line, which will run alongside the Fitchburg commuter rail line and the local community. I think right now the commuter rail tracks are being shifted back to the east side of the corridor into their permanent location. And they’re going to continue working on the west side of the project alignment for right now. There was actually an MBTA fiscal management control board meeting where John Dalton, who’s overseeing the projects, provided an update on the schedule. And this chapter was supposed to occur by the end of September. But John said at the meeting that they now hope to finish it by the winter season, which is pretty much upon us. So last, the board member is worried about the project finishing on time, which is definitely an interesting aspect of this whole project. [9:36]

EL: In your article, you mentioned this concept called design-build construction. Explain what that means and how it makes this particular construction project unique.

CD: Yeah, so Dalton actually attributed some of the schedule pressures that have been building to the design-build structure of the project. And design-build is actually kind of what it sounds like. The project is [9:56] designed as it is being built instead of all the planning happening beforehand. And so in this way, the GLX is kind of different from most construction projects because a single team of designers and contractors are working together on the project instead of independently. And this means — the kind of nature of the design build structure means that cities only know what new construction must take place only a few weeks in advance.

EL: Because we know that it’s been such a long and arduous process with so many actors involved, I think what everyone in the Medford/Somerville community is wondering at this point is: what effects is this going to have on transportation and on housing in Tufts’ host communities? Can you speak a little bit about that? [10:43]

CD: Right. And I actually had the opportunity to talk to Somerville Ward 3 Councillor Ben Ewen-Campen for this article. And one of the things that he’s kind of heard from community members and residents is that they’re really worried about the housing effects of the Green Line Extension and what it might mean for overcrowding in the city. [11:05] He kind of painted a really good picture of what’s been going on to me and he said that Medford and Somerville have already actually surpassed crisis levels in terms of a lack of affordable housing and overcrowding and his constituents are really worried that the GLX will only increase area housing prices even further, which might displace many low- and middle-income residents.

He said that historically, if you go back maybe like a decade or two, before gentrification really hit the area, Somerville really was, and in some parts still is a low-income population that suffered from having highways come through the city instead of having high-quality public transportation. And so Ewen-Campen said that the fact that the GLX is now actually coming, it’s kind of ironic, because a lot of the folks who it was meant for may have already been displaced by gentrification. [11:56]

EL: So this is just going to create even more of a compounded problem. What about in terms of mobility?

CD: Expanding public transportation represents usually a net good [12:03] in a community. I think the issue with the GLX and Somerville and Medford is just making sure that net good doesn’t get lost in the potential, you know, more subtle negative impacts of, you know, maybe area housing prices increasing, maybe the areas becoming less affordable, and that lack of affordability, maybe deterring some of the people who might benefit from the GLX the most, so really mitigating the most positive aspects of the project with some of the negatives.

EL: So there’s also this element which we are investigating in this podcast [12:43] of community organizing efforts to get involved and get behind issues of affordable housing and transportation. What are some of these groups and what are they doing?

CD: Right, so there’s actually a lot of people doing a lot of things around affordable housing. I think in Union Square there is this group called the Union Square Neighborhood Council, [13:00] and they actually won a community benefits agreement with the developers for the area surrounding the upcoming Union Square Green Line station. The community benefits agreement actually includes additional affordable housing being built up front on top of the development that’ll be happening around in the square which is a really great win making sure that the area remains affordable for those residents. 

On top of that, I’m actually taking a class this semester with the CEO of the Somerville Community Corporation. His name is Danny LeBlanc. And one of the things that his organization does is they buy real estate in the Somerville area, and convert it to affordable housing. And he said that his organization has been really ramping up its efforts ahead of the GLX. [13:45] And then from more of like, city council and policy perspective, Ewen-Campen has been talking to a lot of community members about the potential of implementing community land trusts and what community land trusts are, to my understanding, are nonprofit organizations that are comprised of community members, and they go about acquiring land with the stated goal of creating and preserving affordable housing. And so I think that’s another maybe more of a long term effort, but you and Kevin said that it is really garnered a lot of interest from community members and it’s just another way that, you know, the area might try to preserve its affordable housing stock.

I think one of the most appealing factors of this kind of structure is the fact that it is both owned and managed by members of the community instead of what often happens with like absentee landlords who don’t actually live in the area, and because of that kind of vested community interest, there’s a real incentive to keep it affordable for, you know, maybe their neighbors or people who will be continuing to live in the community. [14:53]

Julia Greco (JG): Hello, my name is Julia Greco and I’m here to discuss the Green Line Extension project. The Tufts Daily is investigating the impact that the Green Line Extension will have on the area specifically by Tufts. I’m here with Ben Ewen-Campen, the city councilor for Somerville Ward 3 to hear about his input about the project. Hi, Ben, how do you feel about the GLX project? 

Ben Ewen-Campen (BEC): Hi, Julia. That is a very big question. I’d say the Green Line coming to Somerville is a blessing and a curse. It’s a major major blessing that the community has been pushing for for decades in the sense that it’s going to bring public transportation to a community that really hasn’t had good access to it. And there’s enormous benefits to that [15:44] for residents to be able to move around without driving, to reduce pollution, obviously, of cars on the roads, to give access to folks who work elsewhere on the MBTA but live in Somerville, and historically, of course, Somerville was a community that paid a very high cost for highway infrastructure, environmental justice issues, and yet didn’t really see a lot of the benefits. That’s all in the very good column. I think one of the major issues that a lot of us have had in Somerville is that given all the excitement around these benefits that the Green Line is going to bring, there’s also been an enormous amount of real estate speculation. And what that has meant is that housing prices and rents have skyrocketed, and the closer that we’ve gotten to it actually happening, it’s really only increased. And so I think one of the major priorities that we all have in Somerville now is to push for policies that protect tenants that are facing displacement, that create more affordable housing and that make sure that we don’t just become a city of all wealthy people enjoying this enormous resource. [16:48]

JG: Are you involved more in the advocacy or the project itself?

BEC: That’s a great question. So the Green Line is not controlled at all by the City Council. It’s a state project. They work with the city government. [17:02] 

The mechanics of this is the mayor’s office has put together a team of GLX liaison, a number of members of the engineering department, that interface directly with the MBTA’s contractor and there’s also a designated community representative from each neighborhood. I will say there are a lot of issues on which community advocates and elected officials in Somerville are really disappointed in some of the details of various station designs. One of the major issues has been handicapped accessibility to the stations. Another issue has to do with basic safety and design principles around the community path extension [17:41] and we have very, very frustratingly little ability to actually influence the outcome. The MBTA is being built using a very specific type of contract called a design-build contract, where once the bids are in, the plan is agreed upon and the contractor is on the job, your ability to influence the outcome is very, very, very limited. So we’ve been able to get a couple big changes that we fought for. I shouldn’t even call them big changes. [18:11] They’re actually quite modest changes. But a lot of the issues that the community is advocating for, we have not been able to. [18:19]

JG: Okay, what were those changes you were able to bring about? 

BEC: So one of the big ones has to do with Union Square the area that I represent. And it has to do with an elevator, actually. So for folks who aren’t familiar with this, maybe the simplest way to explain it is if you’re coming from Union Square walking to the train station, there is a flat pathway to get you there. [18:40] So, wheelchair or if you have a stroller or your walker or you’re just carrying a lot of stuff from the square, you can go straight there, no problem. The issue is if you’re coming from the other side, which in this case is basically Cambridge, Inman Square area, due to the elevation differences, you would have to walk 800 or 900 feet out of your way to get to a staircase that would bring you directly to the station. But if you’re not in a position to use stairs for any number of reasons, not even folks just to have walking issues — again, carrying the stroller, walker, crutches — there was not going to be an elevator. It might sound like a small things to folks who don’t have mobility issues, but it’s not. This is just accessibility and justice. 

And in fact, the only way that we were able to get that elevator is by strongly encouraging a private developer that’s building a skyscraper on that location to pay for it. [19:32] So the MBTA did not pay for that. And I want to make this clear that the city of Somerville before I was in office voted to pony up $50 million of Somerville municipal funds for a project that really is a state project that was kind of unprecedented in the history of Massachusetts, a lot of folks, and I agree with them, think that that should not have happened. [19:42] I also want to say that the ultimate project came in substantially under budget, meaning that the state could have done this. Large parts of Somerville residents, people with mobility issues are kind of being treated as second-class citizens.

JG: It’s great that you guys were able to make that change. What do you think the benefits or challenges of this extension are for your constituents?

BEC: I’d say one of the biggest problems is that if you are a renter in Somerville [20:16], and I want to be clear, this is 65% of the people who live in Somerville — enormous amounts of those folks are facing skyrocketing rents and displacement. Now, if you own a house, this really is basically pure upside in a lot of ways. It’s wonderful. But if you’re a tenant, if you’re a renter, our hands are tied from rent stabilization from tenant protections by state law. So we’re all in Somerville strongly dedicated to working at the state level [20:41] to give ourselves the tools we need to protect the tenants who live here currently, but it’s a major challenge. I hear from a lot of folks now “But why don’t you just pass some kind of, you know, basic tenant protections, basic rent stabilizations, you certainly shouldn’t be able to double the rent on an elderly family on fixed income, right?” In fact, state law prohibits us from doing anything. So even if we were to pass a common sense law, you can’t say double the rent on an elderly family on a fixed income. It is illegal for Somerville to pass a policy like that. We are constrained by state law. And if we wanted to pass some version of that, it’s going to require a change in the state legislation. So we are building the coalition to do that. City Council, the mayor, our state delegation is all on board with this, but we have to convince the rest of the state. This is a policy that’s important.

RC: Laurie Goldman is a lecturer in urban and social policy in Tufts’ department of urban and environmental planning. As a member of the previously mentioned Union United coalition, she was part of creating the recently signed community benefits agreement and Union Square. In talking with Goldman, we learned more about the technicalities of the community benefits agreement and the years of hard work and community activism that led to its signing.

[24:30] Union United is a coalition of stakeholders that came together to pass the community benefits agreement in Union Square. For those of us who don’t know what this community benefits agreement is, can you explain how the coalition fights for development without displacement and what your role is in this process?

Laurie Goldman (LG): So, over five years ago in May of 2014, a group of residents and small business owners and faith-based people who are connected with faith-based organizations and community-based organizations came together and launched Union United with this agenda, the overall objective of steering the development around the new Green Line stop in Union Square, so that to fight displacement and to ensure the next displacement that comes from the gentrification of that transit oriented, that is often cooled with transit oriented development and to ensure that the current residents and other low-income residents and residents of color actually benefit from that development. Right from the very beginning of that initiative that the strategy that that core [23:30] group of people decided to be the fulcrum of the organizing efforts, and that the strategy for the anti-displacement agenda was around the community benefits agreement. Community benefits agreement is a legally binding contract that is negotiated between a recognized community group and a major developer who is developing usually a large parcel of land that often has multiple purposes that is also supposed to yield the public benefit. Another reason that we chose a community benefits agreement is because shaping what gets put into that agreement is done by the community, that’s inherent to what it is. And in addition to the fight for remaining in the neighborhood and the fight for having the most benefits for not just the people who are there, but for the city as a whole, because Union Square is a major opportunity for economic development and for cultural development in the city. That opportunity to build community power was another another objective.

RC: So can you outline a little bit more specifically, what are some of Union United’s demands?

LG: So I’d say some of the major wins. And we had demands that were organized under several principles. And you can look at the list of those. I’d say that quite a lot of the wins were wins partly because they were able to start at a very high baseline in our negotiations with the developer. Because a lot of advocacy work that was happening alongside, so if we look at, for example, at affordable housing, the work that was done to raise the baseline of affordable housing was the citizen petition that we filed as community groups to raise the percentage of inclusionary zoning from a requirement that new larger scale development, residential development, would necessitate the allocation of 12 and a half units, percent 12.5% of new units as affordable, we were able to raise that to 20% of new units as being affordable, which meant that — and we also, in addition, in a later fight, were able to raise funds for affordable housing preservation and development through increasing the linkage fee. So that’s generated from new larger scale development, so that the pot of money that we have in the housing Affordable Housing Trust Fund has increased. So all of that was happening simultaneously with the advocacy around the community benefits agreement, and what it meant in negotiation is that we already had that and now what we’re arguing for is way is even more on top of that, which was a very hard struggle, partly because flipside of what I’ve just said, the developer could say, “Hey, we already paid, we’re doing the 20%.” And we are devoting our $10 per square foot over 30,000 square feet of the housing to the trust fund. But it also meant that what we were pushing for in our community benefits was already beyond where we were at the starting point of our process. 

And the major win that I think that we got out of  the term sheet that is now ratified, and part of this legally binding contract is one we got more of that affordable housing designated as family housing rather than studio apartments or one bedrooms that are less conducive to families and we’re sorely lacking family housing in Somerville. And another big coup is that we stipulated that a larger percentage of the affordable housing be built in the first phase which means that many more people will not be displaced because those units will be developed in the early phase rather than after all of the luxury housing raises the rents and raises the housing costs in the area even more so than that the trend is already generated. So that’s another big coup. And then we got some, depending on how you count it, 21 or 39 additional affordable units that are being developed over and above that 20% overall for the whole long time period, which is really a drop in the bucket when we think about the entire need. But the sooner rather than later and the more family is significant. In the area of employment, we had made some really major, really substantial wins. 

When we started this process, we wanted to pay attention to the need [28:54] to invest in employment that that lack of jobs, lack of good jobs, low wages, good benefits, opportunities for advancement, training opportunities, was scarcely on the radar for the city or for activists. And we elevated the attention to that issue. One, similarly, a lot to the housing story that alongside all of that advocacy work around the community benefits agreement where major wins for defining the first source employment program that is run by the Somerville Community Corporation that targets people who have been struggling to find employment and equip them with the skills to find jobs, to retain jobs, to get better jobs and connects them to training opportunities. And we run some training programs that are sector based. And that work is developing as a result of this. And we also were able to introduce the first ever job creation and training trust fund, with a same similar linkage fee [30:00] to the one I just described the most housing that had not existed before. That was during the same period. So now, there is a certain dollar amount that developers must invest in that trust fund. So because we were able to just squeeze in that approval of that ordinance in Somerville before the issuance of the special permit for the development of the Union Square area. They, the developer, US2, are required to pay into that trust fund. But in addition to that, our community benefits agreement got an additional about $2 million devoted to an additional staff person for that first source, employment, jobs. jobs program, staff person that will be hired by us to the developer to work with the tenants on facilitating local hiring agreements, and connecting with the first source program. 

There will be a business development position housed in Union Square Main Streets to work on increasing the opportunities for small businesses, which is another piece of employment, that entrepreneurship. And also there are additional funds that are allocated for training and supports, particularly for the people who are most vulnerable to displacement, who are without intervention and would be the least likely to take advantage of the new job opportunities. We also had some wins regarding union labor. [31:41] The new hotel that will be built in that area will have those workers in that new hotel have the right to organize. And we were able to convince the developer to work with general contractors that are more friendly. We did not win a public labor agreement which would have required all of the construction jobs to be union-led.  Sustainability provisions for the nature of the building, there’s going to be a Passive House among those requirements. Much of that might have happened even in the absence of the community benefits agreement because there’s so much momentum around that. [32:27] It was not as much as we would have wanted to have. But there were disappointments in both of those areas that there was a disappointment that not having underground parking rather than above ground parking. But still quite a lot was won, not everything that we would have wanted.

RC: Goldman also described the time and effort that went into the formation of the community benefits agreement and talked about some of the challenges they faced throughout the process.

LG: It’s an enormous expenditure of people energy to do this work that we wanted, we wanted that power, and we wanted to exercise that power. But we also need the organizing staff to do that. We need a budget to help us [with things] from duplication to refreshments. It would be good to have it be staffed for the coordination in addition to the organizing work, it would be great to be able to hire our — we were able to do a lot of this work because we called upon local and national consultants to be part of this work, but they did that work pro bono. If this becomes large scale, we need more investment in that capacity too, so that’s another big piece of that work: more resources for interpretation, to make sure that more people who are still learning English can participate in it, more resources for education because you have to speak land use in order to participate in this. And so all of that requires capacity. And that needs investment from multiple sources, not just from the people themselves.

[34:30] RC: David Gibbs is the executive director of Community Action Agency of Somerville. The agency engages low-income community members in collectively advocating for social change, facilitating participation and community action. With the knowledge of the new Green Line Extension threatens to displace low- income residents, we want to hear his perspective on how this extension of the MBTA will impact the Somerville community.

What do you see as some of the positive impacts of the Green Line Extension stop? 

David Gibbs (DB): Well, the first one obviously, is environmental. [35:00] And it’s why the Green Line was extended in Somerville in the first place to mitigate particulate emissions coming off at 93 and the McGrath highway. So getting hopefully, you know, that’ll play out with reduced car traffic. We’ll see if it does or not, but that would be great. Obviously, easier and less expensive access to the jobs in Boston for Somerville residents, big help and making it more attractive for businesses to site. You know, in Somerville closer to where we live, so all of those things I think are positive. 

This project is only as good as the city’s ability to keep the residents of the city here to take advantage of the existence of the Green Line. [35:54] If we can’t do that, then the whole thing is a failure as far as I’m concerned. Yeah. I mean, that literally, that’s a failure. If it results in the wholesale turnover [36:00] of the population of the city, then what have you done? Right. And sometimes it’s very frustrating because it feels like people forget that, you know? They just have visions of shiny new buildings with lots of jobs in them. And this is great, you know, but who’s going to be here to take advantage of that, right? You know, populations of cities turnover, that’s natural. But the pace that we’re seeing here is way beyond what you know, what’s just normal for for a city this size [36:31]. So that’s my biggest concern. 

The negatives began, you know, before they even, you know, long before the first station will even open, you just started to see real estate prices going through the roof. I have been here at CAAS for about five years. And when I first got here, we were involved with Union United. And I can remember in some of the early meetings, real debate about, you know, whether we, as a coalition would support the Green Line coming to the city or not, because although it certainly would bring jobs and opportunity for a lot of folks, it was also just going to drive displacement ferociously, and it has just seen a tremendous number of people driven out of the city already. So I think it’s I think that’s the chief negative that comes with it. Yeah. 

I should add, by the way, not just residential displacement but small business displacement too. The cost of just a simple storefront has gone through the roof and that’s a lot of people’s income as well. So have you seen businesses have to leave? Oh, absolutely. Oh, sure. Yeah, definitely. And more are slated to leave. [37:40]

RC: How do you think the Green Line might it might affect the cultural diversity of Somerville?

DB: Everything depends on the city’s will and ability to build affordable housing and other supports for lower-income people. Not that all diversity is lower-income, obviously. But if we’re talking about economic diversity, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is and build lots of affordable housing. There’s just no other way around it. If we don’t do that, then economically this city is not going to be diverse. It’s going to be a city of upper-middle-class and upper-income residents. Ethnically, racially, it’s very hard to say, how would I change but given the given the relationship between race and wealth in Massachusetts, in this country, generally, it’s likely to drive the city more white, probably, would be my expectation. [32:04]

I would say that, in general, the city has been quite responsive to community advocacy. Not always, you know, bending over backwards, but by no means putting up a brick wall and saying, you know, no, no, no, which some cities do. Certainly there are plenty of municipalities where community input is not, you know, they’re welcomed or solicited or, you know, given any attention at all.

I think Somerville as a city [39:22] has charted a fairly good middle ground between, you know, giving the community everything that’s asked for and then giving the developers some of what they want, too. I think that the main developer here, US2, although they were initially I think, fairly resistant to a lot of the community’s input has become less resistant over time, especially since the neighborhood council started having weekly negotiating meetings with them. At first those meetings were quite difficult. People felt very far apart over time, they got to know each other and trust each other a little bit more and they you know, they got a lot more on the same page with the end result.

EL: I’m Elie Levine. I’m one of the hosts and I’m here with Danny LeBlanc, who is a professor at Tufts and a community organizer with Somerville Community Corporation. I was wondering if you could set the stage and kind of outline the effects of the Green Line Extension on the Somerville community, what those effects have been like over the years. 

Danny LeBlanc (DL): Yeah. Well, so for over the years for me it actually even goes back a little bit further than that. I moved to Somerville originally at the end of 1976. So one of the things many of us who live here and I’ve also worked here for the last 20 years for the Somerville Community Corporation, we saw the impact of the Red Line Extension, which was a big kind of precursor to what we might expect with the Green Line. [40:59] And with the Red Line among a whole bunch of other impacts, we saw very significant upticks in housing prices and housing values, especially around Davis Square, Porter Square, West Somerville in general, you know, interestingly, the 1980s also coincided with a time when especially young people, and especially better-educated and more middle-class people were just moving back into cities anyway. And that followed a period where anybody who could afford to move out of cities post World War Two through the 70s. [41:35] But in Somerville, we kind of knew the impacts of the Red Line. So when it became clear that the Green Line was finally gaining traction, there’s a long history to the legal and other sort of underpinnings of how the Green Line came about. We as an organization, a lot of people in the Somerville community, began to anticipate what do we think these impacts might be? And we certainly knew we would see upticks in housing prices, potential displacement of low- and moderate-income people. So much so that we and other advocates in the community had to really think hard about whether we would oppose the development of the Green Line. We ended up deciding there probably some people who still if you ask them, at least privately would say they oppose it. But we as an organization, and I personally believe that’s kind of, I always say it’s the wrong answer to the right question. Good transportation is important for everyone, basically. And I think from an environmental standpoint, certainly having better public transit as an alternative to current transportation is, is great. And the real big issue for us is that we think low and moderate income people ought to also be able to access good public transportation, like the Green Line. [42:49] So our battle grounds have always been around fighting for that, rather than fighting against the development of the Green Line in the first place.

EL: So that’s really interesting. Definitely, some of our other sources have differing, maybe more negative opinions on the extension. I was wondering if you could, since you mentioned rising rents, upticks and overcrowding, potentially in the area is around the Green Line, if you could talk a little bit more about that. And even though you support the project, some of the negative effects.

DL: This is where I probably will part company with some of the other people who observe this stuff. So rents are rents have been rising. [43:28] They’ve been rising through the roof in Somerville. And if you go back through the 2000s, up til the so-called great recession of, you know, ’07, ’08 or ’09, rents were in purchase, prices were rising dramatically in Somerville and they barely leveled off during that great recession and then have been massively rising ever since 2010. Again, and part of the way I look at that is, look, the Green Line isn’t even here, that stuff’s happening. So to say, the Green Line’s causing that I, I think, frankly, is just, you know, it’s a contributing factor, but it’s pretty far from the whole story. [44:08] What I would cite is generally cities and especially cities with strong economies like Greater Boston, just are massively undersupplied with housing compared to the demand, because what I’ve seen personally is people were moving to Somerville period — they didn’t even care or know if the Green Line was coming. They were coming. And they were helping to sort of bring prices up. To me, that’s just an absolute value that we should, we shouldn’t fight against good public transportation because we were afraid of the displacement effect.

It’s interesting, there’s a guy, his name is Rick Jacobus, he’s a sort of a writer and a policy guy out on the West Coast, who wrote an article a little while back. And the title of the article was that we can’t build our way out of this housing crisis, or really, he was talking about the affordable housing crisis, but we also can’t get out of it without building. Part of what he was saying there’s a tendency to oppose a lot of development. You know, in some circumstances, that’s appropriate, but you can’t pretend that we don’t have a housing shortage. And then say we we just want people to be able to afford to live and then oppose building anything. Just the math just doesn’t add up. [48:28] So I, my starting point is to say we need to strategically figure out how to build a very large number of new housing units in the region. And yes, in some cases, things might not be appropriate, but you can’t simply oppose all new development and then say you care about affordable housing. It just doesn’t work. For me, at least.

EL: So what are some of the ways that your organization Somerville Community Corporation, right, is countering that impulse and actually do that work to support affordable housing in tandem with expanded transportation?

DL: Yeah, it’s probably three or four things that we’re doing so we we part of our work as an organization is we build an own affordable housing. We build ownership housing in some cases, so housing that people can buy, [46:14] that’s permanently deed restricted to be affordable forever, even if the original buyers sell out. A lot of what we do is though, build and own and manage rental housing subsidized to be affordable permanently. So doing more of that, making sure we don’t lose any existing affordable housing because that can happen. There are some affordable housing that’s been built over the decades have certain time. Deadlines on them, where it is possible, because the owners are often private. It’s possible for the owners to convert that housing to market rate use. So not allowing that to happen is an important thing to do. What’s called inclusionary housing, which is basically requiring that private developers have a certain price percentage of their new developments be affordable. Our organization led a campaign three, almost four years ago now to increase Somerville’s percentage from 12.5%  to 20%. So any large, any new developments have more than six units in Somerville now 20% of the units have to be affordable and there’s a very rigorous [47:24] definition as to what affordable means by median income percentages. Somerville is a fairly unique community in that the city is so densely built out and it was built out a century ago, really, this was built as worker housing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All of that old housing stock is also massively upscaling in price. And so we’re buying some of it and we have subsidy that we’re able to work with the city of Somerville on and the city of Somerville supports our efforts. We bought, well, as of next week, we will have bought about 85 units of housing in the last three or four years of existing housing not building new housing. But then what, once we buy it, that housing is state permanently affordable as well. So you can both build new but you can also try to capture existing, right?  

RC: Marcos Garcia is the founder and director of the Committee On Refugees from El Salvador, which most students know as CORES, he came to the U.S. to give a talk on immigration. And at the end, one student asked him how he thinks the new Green Line extension will affect the immigrant community in Somerville. Garcia said that he’s already seen rising rents displacing residents and businesses and is concerned about what the future will bring. Here’s what he said: 

MG: To tell you the truth, it’s gonna be the worst. It’s gonna be a nightmare. For example, you know what you see what you come into CORES, you see the gas station. They asked the guy who owns that gas station, the guy was forced to sold that. You know how much they pay for that small place? Six  million dollars. They’re going to build it up into seven floors 52 apartment building. The neighborhoods are fighting. They’re not going to help to reduce the rent they’re going to make it worse, gonna be a nightmare in terms of cost of living in Somerville and Medford. So those project they are management in the wrong direction what people need, because they can’t afford it. It’s really bad. So we don’t mind telling many people who people who talk about the issue of the train that we not really feel happy about it because it’s gonna be a lot of displacement of people. Maybe those who want to take the train too, but those who don’t really take the train aren’t going to be happy about it. It could be a good project but it’s having a negative effect on people’s lives. 

Ben Echevarria [BE]: I mean, we’re already seeing it. We’re seeing a lot of displacement happening already. [38:34]

EL: That’s Ben Echevarria, executive director of the Welcome Project, a Somerville-based immigrant advocacy organization.

BE: About 10 years ago, my program served something like 90% we’re government, you know, our immigrant constituency, lived in Somerville. We’re down to 58% this year. And, you know, we’ve been seeing sort of the the down click, we’re also looking at data and a lot of it is they started off here in Somerville, now they’re in Medford or wherever it and so we’re starting to see the trend of you’re here, you know, being displaced from living somewhere else. So you know, and we’re seeing rents go up, I mean, you know, remember rents $1,300 was once upon a time, you know, crazy and now, one bedrooms going for $2,300, so it’s crazy. 

The Green Line came because of because of a lawsuit and you know an environmental firm that was CF conservative legal foundation. I think they’re called law foundation and — Conservation Law Foundation that’s what they’re called — basically sued over the Big Dig in said that because of black and brown people living near the highways. The other way that you know that they deserve better air quality and they’re designed was the Green Line. The Green Line is to displace the very people it’s supposed to be here to protect, and nobody’s done anything about that. I think at the end of the day, what we’re looking at is sort of a complete, you know, a complete environmental racism project and we’re not looking at something in the way of making sure that those who are most impacted to stay and, and even still, the Green Line coming. Not one of these stops are actually in community where people of color live. So I don’t know how that was a benefit for people of color versus a benefit to the city.

RC: So in what ways are you involved in the advocacy or the project itself? 

BE: So we were part of Union United for years, which was fighting around displacement and going on and in Union Square, but part of part of the tactic [53:11] was talking about the Green Line. I have personally testified and have brought up the fact that the Green Line project is an environmental racism project. And I’ve actually heard environmental groups say, you know, when I, when I brought this issue up, say, don’t say that, because that will cancel the Green Line coming versus how do we actually make this an equitable project. So, you know, so I’ve been involved quite a bit of it. I’ve still been sort of the champion of the Green Line’s coming here for a reason and it’s displacing the very people it’s supposed to be here for. You know, this is not what equity looks like, this is not what and you know, anything looks like so. So I’ve been pretty involved in it and the Welcome Project’s been somewhat involved.

RC: So has the community or the project been receptive to the advocacy?

BE: Nope. No, I mean, you know, again, part of the environmental arguments I’ve been, I’ve heard many, you know, including politicians, white people say things like, you know, testifying in front of MassDOT [Massachusetts Department of Transportation] that that we’re all the Green Line because of black and brown people living, you know, living with poor air quality and that was the promise and not caring that these very people that they claim that they care about are being displaced by it. 

RC: What do you see as some of the positive impacts of the Green Line stuff on the Somerville and the Tufts community?

BE: So some of the things that I see that are positive is there’s new revenue coming in. So new stores new. You know, we’re sitting at Assembly Row can’t help it just doesn’t exist unless it, you know, becomes accessible. You know, we’ll see we’re seeing it more, you know, modernizing housing, our housing stock and we’re seeing an influx of people. I think those are positive things.

AF: Thank you for listening to this first episode of the Blight’s series on the GLX and its impact on the surrounding community of Medford and Somerville. In our next episode, we will discuss more about the impact that the new GLX stop at the intersection of College Ave. and Boston Ave. will have on the Tufts community specifically.


COPYRIGHT 2020 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.