Mayoral candidate Corbett calls for development without displacement
Standing beside Gio the Lego giraffe just a few hours after the eclipse had passed overhead, Payton Corbett looks around, and mostly up, at the development of Assembly Row.
“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says. “This is why I decided to run for mayor.”
Quiet, new-tree-lined streets are dotted with shops, including Brooks Brothers, Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th, and Ann Taylor Loft. They spread out from a central square where the yellow Lego herbivore stands sentry, but Gio won’t win any height contests around here. Above the stores, luxury condos and an Autograph Collection by Marriott boutique hotel are on the way, with some residents already moved in.
But it wasn’t always supposed to be quite like this, Corbett says.
Long a source of debate in Somerville, development of this area originally incited community resistance around the question of a proposed Ikea (that never came), including among other issues the potential traffic that big box stores would inevitably bring. When the Ikea pitch was quashed, major developer Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) stepped in to turn the area into a mixed-use retail and residential buildout.
Since coined Assembly Row, this area sees a number of Corbett’s key campaign issues come to a head as he faces off against Mayor Joseph Curtatone, a popular 14-year incumbent (Corbett and Curtatone face candidate Kenneth Van Buskirk III in a primary on Tuesday, Sept 19, with two top vote-getters advancing to the general election on Nov 7).
Originally, Corbett says the plan for Assembly Square was to include mixed layers of affordable housing, including the then-required 12.5 percent low-income affordable housing on big developments. Then in 2016, the Somerville Board of Aldermen voted to increase the city’s amount of required affordable housing to 20 percent.
As Matt McLaughlin, the Alderman of Ward 1, where Assembly Square is located, has been reminding voters in his own campaign against an ally of the mayor’s, that increase was reached with a majority vote and with the understanding that it would apply to the Assembly Row development—even though development was underway.
But in early 2017, FRIT requested a waiver on the new requirements, arguing that plans were already in motion. The company pushed to keep the original 12.5 percent requirement and, according to Corbett and McLaughlin, were met with resistance from the community and aldermen, leading to several meetings being held to address the issue.
In May, the city reached a compromise with FRIT: 16 percent of the development would be required affordable housing, with 6 percent onsite at Assembly Row and another 10 percent elsewhere in Somerville, at an undetermined time and location.
“The law in the city was 20 percent, and the majority of people who were active and showed up to the meetings wanted 20 percent, and the vast majority of elected officials wanted 20 percent,” Corbett says. “The compromise was basically a $10 million payment to the city to purchase property in the future.”
Corbett says this compromise was not in the best interest of the city for a few reasons. One, he says it leaves Somerville responsible for locating, purchasing, and building the remaining affordable housing units.
The smaller percentage of affordable units on site also allowed too many of the new units to be marketed as a higher luxury, which Corbett says is squarely out of the price range of too many residents.
According to Zillow, the average rental price in Somerville—for units of all sizes—is now $2,800/month, which is an 8 percent increase from 2016 and up from $1,800 in 2011. A studio in the Avalon apartments at Assembly Row, meanwhile, will run you $2,500.
Then there’s the matter of how the compromise was reached. While the waiver was approved by the city’s planning board, Corbett mainly takes issue with Curtatone. In Somerville’s strong-mayor system, he says many position appointments like those on the planning board are “largely ceremonial.” Thus, he says, the planning board represents the mayor on issues like this.
Though preliminaries still primarily attract legacy voters, the results of next week’s vote should provide insight into which way residents of Somerville are leaning in the shadow of Assembly. In Curtatone, they get the city’s longest-serving chief executive in history and a friend of several big developers. Corbett, on the other hand, is a truck driver and warehouseman for Anheuser-Busch who is an elected leader of his Teamsters local and who refers to himself as the “working class” choice in the race.
If elected as mayor, Corbett says he’d open up a discussion about the current strong-mayor system and its inadequacies. He also wants to take a hard look at relinquishing some executive powers and possibly shifting certain responsibilities—like making appointments to the planning board, for example—over to the Board of Aldermen, thereby making the system more democratic.
Curtatone, who has been mayor since 2004, disagrees. In an emailed statement to the Dig through his campaign manager, Curtatone said that after those appointments are made, he removes himself from the process to remain independent and neutral.
“The Mayor and Board of Aldermen can propose changes to ordinances (for instance, we desperately need a citywide zoning overhaul), but a mayor playing politics with permitting creates liability for the city,” Mayor Curtatone wrote. “Once board and commission members are appointed, they act independently. I don’t call members of any board or commission to influence their votes. I never have and I never will.”
For Corbett, there is also the issue of non-union labor being used in the construction of Assembly Row. As a shop floor union leader at the nearby Medford Budweiser distribution facility, that doesn’t sit well with him.
“Workers’ rights are human rights,” he says. “We need to take care of our working people.”
Corbett also says that he would seek to avoid tough compromise situations like the one at Assembly Row with something he calls “Payton’s Pledge,” a promise to refuse campaign donations from anyone associated with development in Somerville. Such a focus on the freedom from corporate influence hearkens back to the presidential campaign of US Sen. Bernie Sanders, and indeed, the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution Somerville backs the labor candidate.
On a lot of issues not relating to Assembly Square, Corbett and Curtatone are in close agreement; for starters, both support Somerville being a sanctuary city and welcoming immigrants, and both are protective of LGBTQ rights.
Still, for Corbett, the Assembly Row compromise galvanized him into taking action to protect worker’s rights and affordable housing. On the other side, Curtatone says he’s proud of how the ongoing development has come together.
“When we look at successful projects like that, sometimes people forget the hard work it took to get there,” the mayor wrote. “When we bring people in Somerville together we can accomplish great things.”
“It’s pretty ambitious for just a regular working guy to run, but I’ve been getting a lot of support,” says Corbett, citing endorsements by the Greater Boston Labor Council, Teamsters Local 122, and the Somerville Neighborhood Coalition.
“It’s hard to judge because we haven’t had a mayor’s race in 10 years.”