Keeping Union Square Open for the Arts

Community groups are making sure that changes in the Somerville neighborhood don't limit open space and stomp out creativity.

Union Square Photo Courtesy of Union Square Neighbors

Union Square Photo Courtesy of Union Square Neighbors

A grassroots neighborhood coalition in Somerville is kicking off a series of community-based meetings to make sure that as Union Square takes on massive redevelopments, and prepares for the arrival of the MBTA’s Green Line extension, that the arts and open space remain on the forefront of any new changes.

“Our goal as a neighborhood association is to protect what makes Union Square such a great place to live today, to make sure the broad ideas of the neighborhood are realized in the details of what is actually built, and to also be proactive about coming up with real ideas to shape our own future,” said Tim Talun, chairman of the Union Square Neighbors group, an independent organization with no direct ties to Somerville’s governmental operations. “That is why we are holding these events.”

Called “The Space in Between,” which will span the course of three consecutive weeks beginning July 24, group leaders from Union Square Neighbors, in collaboration with Union Square Main Streets, will convene with experts in the arts and urban environment sectors who will deliver testimony about ways the neighborhood can make sure that the parks, plazas, sidewalks, streets, and alleys that make up the public realm remain open to creative designs and spots for artistic endeavors.

“There’s going to be a series of presentations, some small group discussions, and we will put something together to provide to the city,” said Talun. “The outcome of the meetings are intended to get people to come and see what’s been done other places so they know what’s possible for Somerville. With all the development going on, we want people to understand all of the things that are possible [for public art and public spaces].”

With a series of major developments slated to reimagine Union Square, and an extension of the T expected by 2017, the group wants to plan ahead, before the shovels meet the dirt.

“Our hope is to be an advocate for the residents and stakeholders of Union Square so they can be an active voice in shaping their community and protecting what they value today, while bringing an even better tomorrow,” said Talun.

Community arts leader Jason Turgeon, who helped bring the Bartlett Yards and FIGMENT events to Boston, is scheduled to speak during one of the meetings about the potential for “play” opportunities in Union Square.

“I’m planning on generally talking about the importance of creating vibrant public spaces for lots of different people, especially given the high concentration of artists in Somerville,” he said. “It’s important they produce a great civic space that works for all different kinds of arts and activities, and not just be about the commercial aspects.”

While he has confidence in Somerville’s leaders, Turgeon said he felt like the city flopped on its latest development of Assembly Square, and that hosting these meetings is a good chance to really hammer into the heads of officials and builders that the Union Square space needs to continue to covet the arts.

“It’s a small space—it’s not that big—and they already do a lot of activities there, so I would hope they would expand for the kinds of things they have now, and add some sort of locally iconic public art piece,” he said. Whether it’s some sort of murals or sculptures or space for performing arts. They need to figure out how to expand what’s there and really put some thought into public arts and civic benefits, not just about people trying to get to their jobs faster.”

In June, after a small city-appointed committee traveled the country to interview and meet with potential master developers for the Union Square project, Mayor Joe Curtatone announced that a company had been selected.

Union Square Station Associates was unanimously picked by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority to take on the immense task of overhauling the neighborhood as part of the Union Square Revitalization plan.

In the months before the developer was selected, Curtatone expressed similar wants for the burgeoning neighborhood that the Union Square Neighbors group is focusing on during their upcoming meetings. “Change is coming to Union Square…however, we do not want to transform Union Square into something else. We want to preserve what we love about Union Square, its unique character and diversity with its small businesses, ethnic stores, a vibrant artist community, and affordable housing options,” he said. “We must ensure that redevelopment in the neighborhood enhances and complements this historic commercial center. If we want to ensure a balance between redevelopment and preservation as well as hold to our community vision, we must manage that change.”

Talun hopes that the meetings with neighbors and artistic visionaries will further that message, and keep Curtatone and members of the Somerville Redevelopment Authority accountable.

“Want to make sure that the interesting residents that make it a great place to live stay fully engaged,” said Talun. “The point of neighborhood meetings is to talk about the big ideas can be. This is the start of the conversation to think about that. I think it’s an extremely exciting time. What the outcome of this could be something great and it could really enhance this place.”