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Eminent Domain ‘A Last Resort’ In Union Square, Somerville Mayor Says

BOSTON — In an open letter (PDF) to residents and businesses, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone calls potential land takings by eminent domain in Union Square “a last resort.”

The city has laid out seven redevelopment blocks in the area that could be taken as it prepares for the opening of a new Green Line stop, which is expected to open in 2017.

Some of those acquisitions, like those where the MBTA station will be built, have already been completed. Others may be taken by the city and given to a developer, with the aim of creating 4,300 new jobs and 850 new housing units in the Union Square area by 2030.

Critics say the plan goes too far and would uproot businesses that have been in the area for decades. Some have indicated they plan to fight any eminent domain takings.

Next month, the city plans to release a request for applications for a master developer to coordinate work in Union Square. Applicants would then be vetted over the winter, both by the city and through presentations to residents, with a decision expected by spring 2014.

In a previous interview, Curtatone told WBUR the city was seeking a partner with previous experience developing dense, urban areas.

He also stresses in the open letter that the city is seeking one developer.

“A primary developer will have the resources to contribute to the estimated $50 million in infrastructure improvements that will improve the square for everyone,” he wrote, “as well as the resources to address any contamination potentially located on sites that currently host light industrial uses.”

Some have criticized the plan for being too far-reaching.

Somerville Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz says she supported taking land needed to build the T stop, but says the city’s proposal goes too far.

“The rest of it was speculative, was unclear that that was going to be necessary,” she said. “And it cast somewhat of a cloud over those properties for a reason that never quite became clear, never became apparent why it was necessary to do that.”

In the letter, Curtatone stresses that a master developer would be expected to reach out to property owners, either to reach a deal on the sale of the property, or on a partnership with the current owner.

But he says the option of eminent domain must remain “as a last resort option to avoid situations like in Teele Square, where a commercial building burned down more than a year ago,” he wrote. “Now, an empty lot sits without a buyer, because as of yet the cost of purchasing and cleaning up contamination on the site has been too great to attract an investor for this prime location just minutes from Davis Square.”

As part of the process, the city is hosting an online forum about Union Square on Dec. 5 at 12:30 p.m.

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