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Some Union Square Businesses ‘In Limbo’ With Green Line Extension

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SOMERVILLE, Mass. — J.T. Scott stood at the site of the planned Union Square MBTA station, looking down at the CrossFit gymnasium he opened two years ago.

“It’s kind of a nondescript little building there,” he said, glancing back at the scrapyard that now sits at the site of the proposed T stop. “Having the T here and having any kind of development here is certainly going to be an upgrade over the scrapyard.”

Big changes are coming to Scott’s part of the neighborhood. Construction is set to begin in spring 2014 on the first three stops of the Green Line extension, expected to open in 2017.

Ultimately, the full extension will stretch north into Medford, greatly expanding access to public transportation in the most densely populated city in New England.

Right now, just 25 percent of Somerville residents live within walking distance of a subway stop. The extended Green Line will push that number to 80 percent.

As a result, city leaders expect a rash of new development — similar to what happened when the Red Line came to Davis Square in the 1980s.

Alderman Jack Connolly, who’s lived in Somerville his whole life, remembers what things were like before the T arrived.

“Davis Square in the mid-’70s was pretty much boarded up, tired,” he said. “It was a place where two or three of us wouldn’t walk after dark because we knew better.”

Contrast that with the Davis Square of today — packed, vibrant, attracting college students and young professionals.

Now, with Union Square, the city is taking a much more active role. As part of the Davis redevelopment plan, the city took only two properties by eminent domain. For Union Square, it has designated seven plots of land for possible taking at an estimated cost of $26 million.

Some acquisitions, like those where the T stop will eventually be built, have already been completed. Others that are still up in the air consist of mostly automotive shops and gas stations, but also J.T. Scott’s gymnasium.

Scott says he had no idea the city was thinking about this when he bought and renovated the building two years ago.

“I didn’t get financing from a bank for this,” he said. “This is my life savings from working in the semiconductor industry. My purchase in a lot of ways set the market price for what Union Square is.”

But the city-assessed value for Scott’s business is $300,000 less than what he paid for it two years ago. That’s not counting the cost of renovating the former auto body shop into a gym.

There’s no clear timeline on when the city might act. And a city spokeswoman says it’s possible some or even all of the properties may remain in their current hands.

Still, the specter of the city of Somerville taking Scott’s land remains. So he says he’s put further plans to renovate the property on hold.

“[I’m] just in limbo,” he said. “As long as my property is listed there anytime in the next 20 years, they could decide to take it. How can I invest in my property now, knowing that next year it might not be there?”

Mayor Joseph Curtatone says the land-takings are necessary to make the project succeed.

“To really unlock any opportunity, we need to have a certain concentration of development to bring that partner in,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose development blocks for the future.”

The city envisions a number of five-story buildings, with retail on the ground floor and offices and condominiums above. It predicts that will create 850 new housing units, and more than 4,000 new jobs in the Union Square area alone.

But Scott says he has his own plan to construct a five-story building on his existing property, with space for doctors’ offices, gymnastics classes and a rooftop garden.

Curtatone says it’s possible business owners, like Scott, will be allowed to redevelop their own land, but only if the plan meets the city’s criteria. Even then, he says it’s unlikely because the city prefers to have one developer for all Union Square properties taken by eminent domain.

“We cannot afford to have certain blocks developed to their highest potential and others not,” he said. “One, we will not create enough value for any potential partner, and two, this city misses out on an opportunity to build the neighborhood it hopes and dreams to create.”

The city of Somerville will begin taking proposals from developers next month, with an eye toward selecting one by the spring.

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