Future finally brightens for Assembly Square

Construction to begin in fall on $1.5 billion mixed-use project

Office buildings, a hotel, and Ikea store and hundreds of apartments are to be built on this industrial site next to the Mystic River in Somerville. Office buildings, a hotel, and Ikea store and hundreds of apartments are to be built on this industrial site next to the Mystic River in Somerville. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / June 9, 2011

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After years of false starts, the developer of the $1.5 billion revitalization of Assembly Square in Somerville will begin construction this fall on hundreds of homes, stores, and an expanded park along the Mystic River.

Executives with Federal Realty Investment Trust said the work will launch a sweeping transformation of 60 acres of industrial property that will eventually contain several office buildings, a hotel, and an IKEA furniture store.

This fall’s work will also include construction of the Assembly Square Orange Line station and the revitalization of a large section of the Mystic River Reservation, which will be updated with new connections for bicycles and public transportation.

“We’re undoing the mistakes of the past through this project,’’ said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, a fervent advocate of Assembly Row for more than a decade. “This is going to improve the quality of life for people who live . . . in East Somerville and up to the Mystic housing projects and provide better access to a waterfront many people didn’t realize Somerville had.’’

Initially conceived in the late 1990s, the project now known as Assembly Row has suffered through several delays, at first due to community opposition to a prior version and then because the economic downturn dried up funding for large-scale commercial developments.

But a key catalyst to getting the construction started this fall was the appropriation of $104 million in federal and state funds by the Patrick administration for an access road and other site-prep work, as well as money for the T station. Somerville also provided $25 million in bonds to pay for road work and utility upgrades.

“We’ve had a bad habit in this state of stepping away from these investments and telling private developers they need to find a way to make it happen,’’ said Gregory Bialecki, Patrick’s economic development chief. “This is a dramatic change in that model where we’re now saying we are prepared to pay for the public infrastructure needed for these projects.’’

AvalonBay Communities Inc. will begin construction this fall on the first two residential buildings on the site. The buildings, which will contain retail stores on the ground floor, will be built along the Mystic River and include 450 apartments.

An executive with AvalonBay said one of the buildings will contain studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments that the company hopes to rent for $1,500 to $2,000 per month.

Federal Realty itself will begin construction in the fall or early 2012 on a separate 280,000-square-foot retail building that will include a theater, restaurants, a few large retailers and smaller shops. No tenants have been signed for the building.

The company, which became involved in the project six years ago, previously redeveloped the adjacent Assembly Square Marketplace, which includes a Bed Bath & Beyond, Sports Authority, Christmas Tree Shops, and other big-box retailers.

The property was formerly an industrial hub that was home to a Ford Motor Factory, which closed in 1958. Later occupants included tool makers H.K. Porter and Cambridge Machined Products.

The full build-out of the site is expected to take 10 to 15 years. Later phases will include another 1,650 residential units, additional parks, a 200-room hotel, and office buildings that Federal Realty hopes to lease to technology or medical tenants. The firm estimates the work will create 21,000 construction jobs and 19,000 permanent jobs.

IKEA, which originally purchased land on the site in 1999, is also planning a store there and has received most of its permits. The firm has not identified a construction start date. “We remain committed to IKEA Somerville,’’ said Joseph Roth, a spokesman for the Swedish retailer

Don Briggs, the executive leading the project for Federal Realty, said it is designed in the mold of other successful urban neighborhoods such as Kendall Square in Cambridge and Boston’s Back Bay. Even without the buzz of a new IKEA, he said, the upcoming work will dramatically change the appearance of the property.

“People will begin to see that something real is happening here,’’ Briggs said. “This isn’t going to be a mall or Anywhere USA. The retail component is going to be unique to the market as we understand what’s already here and what the community wants.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at