The recent dust-up between Mayor Joe Cutatone and Cambridge City Councilor Ken Reeves raises the question, which is the more interesting city? Somerville or Cambridge? Of course Somerville is. With our commitment to diversity, our strong sense of civic pride, and our remarkable authenticity, to suggest otherwise is downright silly. However, with the extension of the Green Line, the coming of Ikea and the development of Assembly Square, will we be able to maintain our high rate of hip? Can we avoid the fate of Cambridge and not become, to borrow Mayor Curtatone’s spot-on comparison, another Natick?
Extending the Green Line through Somerville will improve access to downtown Boston. With an easier commute, housing in our authentic neighborhoods become far more desirable. Will the higher costs of housing displace the artists and musicians that Mayor Joe cites in his spirited defense of our city? Without affordable apartments for rent, will future Presidents be able to live in Somerville, while they study in Cambridge?
Will the opening of Ikea generate jobs for our residents and opportunities for local businesses? (Someone has to sell them the ground beef for all those meatballs, why not McKinnon’s?) Will the traffic generated by Ikea bring shoppers to our hip squares, or will our streets be merely part of the passing scenery?
Who will build the new Assembly Square? Local tradesmen? Or by drivers of pick up trucks with New Hampshire license plates? Will the residences in Assembly Square be luxury, high-rise, one and two bedroom condos? Or will they be family friendly three and four bedroom apartments and townhouses?
While market forces may seem insurmountable, and many changes inevitable, we can shape our city’s future. We can preserve affordable housing by increasing the percentage of affordable units in new developments from the current 12.5% to 15%. We can build on the success of Clarendon Hill Towers and encourage the creation of tenant owned housing complexes. We can regulate the rate of conversion of rental apartments to condominiums.
First Source Hiring and Local Business Enterprise policies, like those enacted in East Palo Alto, California, would require large retailers such as Ikea to hire a certain percentage of local residents, and make a good faith effort to source goods and services from local businesses. We can preserve the distinct qualities of our squares and business districts by limiting the numbers of chain stores and franchises through a Formula Trade Ordinance as Chatham on Cape Cod did in 2009. We can ensure that local tradesmen will build local public and private developments by putting in place a Residents Job Policy similar to the ordinances that have been on the books in Boston since the mid 1980s.
Without question, Somerville is cool, hip and happening. Without question, preserving our cool, hip and happening status requires careful thought, deliberate planning, hard work, and an unshakable belief in the unique quality of our city and the people who live here.