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.

The Green Line

In the case of the Green Line extension through Somerville, there is only one traditional community development organization in the coalition — the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC). The other partners include Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), a group of transportation wonks; Somerville Community Health Agenda, a health campaign spearheaded by a local hospital; and Groundworks Somerville, which is committed to improving access to green space in one of the nation’s most crowded cities. (Groundworks, like SCC, has staff to commit to the project — the other two partners are volunteer-based.)

While all four partners support the CDC’s priority on smart TOD while preventing displacement, the other partners have their own, distinct interests. To make the coalition work as a united front, the CDC has to mute its emphasis on displacement a bit. The four partners are working together to win well-thought-out uses of the land around the station sites, as they pursue their own agendas on the side.

“If we weren’t connected to these groups we could maybe have a Right to the City message,” says Meridith Levy, director of organizing for the SCC. “If you come in with an agenda, it’s easier to be strident and reach people you know will care about that message. So our message has gotten a little watered down. We’re doing our organizing behind the scenes.”

It isn’t just the message that separates the CDC from its partners. It’s also to whom the message is addressed. “We’re trying to organize the new immigrants and the white working class,” says LeBlanc. “That doesn’t mean we don’t welcome the gentry, as long as our partners understand we’re focused on organizing the other two groups.”

Ellin Reisner, president of STEP, downplays the distinctions among the coalition members. “Our approaches are not in conflict, though they are different,” she says. “I don’t think we disagree in our overall vision.” She notes that while she only has time to focus on transportation issues when she meets with other coalition members, housing affordability is critical to her as a community resident.

SCC got involved in the Green Line issue fairly recently, in early 2008. The other three partners welcomed the CDC as part of a coalition that could push the city and state to enable smart land development adjacent to the new stations.

The partners’ central joint effort, the Community Corridor Planning Project, is a grassroots effort to get residents to plan their TOD sites in advance of the city of Somerville’s comprehensive planning process. The coalition held six visioning sessions in 2009 near each of the future stations. In October, the partners planned to bring participants together from each of the six locations to unveil principles for future development. In 2010, the next steps will be to write policy recommendations and to craft design guidelines for the six sites. The hope is that the city will incorporate much of what the coalition comes up with into the comprehensive plan.

Keeping a coalition going can create some significant challenges on a day-to-day basis. “We have more people doing the work so we can delegate to more people, and get access to more grants. But we have different staff and lines of supervision. So we have to have crisp lines of communication,” says Levy.

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