Getting from Here to There

Transit advocates and CDCs in two parts of the greater Boston region are building cross-movement coalitions that are making equitable transit-oriented development a part of the fight for better transit access.

In 2007, the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) was glowing in the wake of a major victory. They had just negotiated an agreement with IKEA, the trendy furniture chain, guaranteeing a share of the jobs in the company’s new store for residents of the city. The store was coming to Somerville, just north of Boston, to locate next to a brand-new subway station on the Orange Line. SCC thought the transit was great, but saw the jobs as the most important thing. The agency’s priority was to make sure its low-income and immigrant constituents had something to gain.

Meanwhile, a much bigger transit campaign was well underway in another part of the city. For decades, transit advocates had been fighting for more train service for Somerville, one of the most densely populated cities in the country. They had won a commitment two years earlier from the state of Massachusetts to build six new stations along an extension of the Green Line, and were now focused on how property adjacent to these stations would be developed. Unlike the stop next to the IKEA store, which was isolated from most of the city’s population by an interstate highway, the Green Line stations would be located in places where homes and businesses had historically been concentrated. Indeed, over half the households in the city live within a half-mile of one of the six new stops.

“The people who study land use associated with rapid transit say you can expect major changes within a half-mile of the stops,” says Daniel LeBlanc, SCC’s executive director. “We said, ‘Wow, the biggest thing that’s going to happen here is the Green Line.’”

LeBlanc and his colleagues at SCC knew what had happened when a third subway, the Red Line, was extended to West Somerville in the 1980s. Within two decades, virtually the entire working-class population that had lived in that part of the city for generations disappeared. They were replaced by a wave of wealthier professionals drawn to the easy transit access into Boston. SCC was convinced the same thing would happen on the Green Line if it didn’t launch a vigorous campaign against displacement.

But SCC didn’t want to appear to be thwarting the ambitions of transit advocates by suggesting that new subway service was a bad thing. So the CDC asked these advocates to join them in a coalition dedicated to achieving equitable transit-oriented development. Over the past two years, SCC has worked closely with several partner organizations to plan a vision for development that includes working-class groups, rather than shutting them out.

Meanwhile, activists in Dorchester’s Four Corners section began pushing in 1999 for new stations on the commuter rail line that runs through their section of Boston. It was a matter of fairness: why should suburban commuters have access to rapid transit but not people in low-income city neighborhoods of color? The Fairmount Line carries riders from the southern end of the city to downtown with just three stops in the tightly packed neighborhoods in between. Moreover, service is limited even at those stops. Supporters call their vision of enhanced transit the Indigo Line, to suggest that their line should be part of the subway system that has long served other, whiter or wealthier parts of Boston.

As in Somerville, a coalition of CDCs and transit activists from the Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park sections of Boston has formed around the Indigo Line transit campaign to both seek development and at the same time caution against its side effects and to push for increased service, but without displacement. In both cases, these dynamic coalitions have their challenges and risks, but members say they also bolster their individual strength. CDCs, as developers and groups not historically at the center of transit fights, bring an important voice to these endeavors.

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