On Thursday, 27 April, I attended a public meeting of the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) at the High School library. The SRA voted to pass the Union Square Master Land Disposition Agreement (MLDA), transferring 12 acres of property to US2, the master developer of the Union Square project. The SRA, an un-elected body appointed by the Mayor, voted to approve the transfer, despite objections raised by community groups regarding accountability on the part of US2.
The result of this vote is a disappointment, but not a surprise. Another turn of events that evening was very shocking: our city government meeting was “astroturfed” — attended by a large group of non-Somervillens expressing support for the developer’s agenda. Several pro-developer attendees claimed outright that they were not Somerville residents. One asked me where the Seventh Ward is when I told him I live here. The person handing out signs and stickers to the dozens of pro-developer attendees — a Malden resident — is an associate at The Novus Group, a firm specializing in “Disruptive lobbying for the innovation economy.” Novus’s other clients include DFER, a Wall Street-funded group working to privatize public schools and weaken teachers’ unions, and Airbnb, a corporate middleman that profits from making rental apartments more scarce — maybe you saw Novus’recent astroturf petition to the city of Cambridge on behalf of Airbnb.
They held signs made by a paid consultant, checked their phones, and clapped tepidly when the un-elected board voted to transfer public land to a private corporation. Immediately after the vote the astroturfers filed out together, a few dozen crossing the lawn and disappearing up Highland Avenue. Why had they come, these out-of-towners? Our guess: they were assembled by US2, to give the impression that the community supports the land transfer, when in fact multiple well-established groups spoke out against it. The MLDA specifically helps US2 avoid true accountability to our community in the form of a strong and enforceable Community Benefits Agreement.
Whether or not we support the Union Square development plan as written, Somervillens should be aware that outside groups who stand to profit from it are trying to play tricks on members of our planning board. We hope that the Mayor and Board of Aldermen are as insulted by this tactic as we are, and will publicly say so.