T stops could wake up sleepy squares
Ball Square didn't draw much foot traffic on a typical sleepy afternoon last Sunday. A few people walked by the square's small shops - a salon, a wine store - and the square's popular brunch places. Wig Zamore, a Somerville transit advocate who holds unpaid positions on a number of transit-project boards, stood above a small, shabby parking lot. Across the street, a small building boasted a big "for sale or lease" banner.
But if all goes according to the state's plan, in five years, that parking lot will be a station for the Green Line extension. The state Executive Office of Transportation issued recommendations Feb. 3 from a draft environmental impact report: five new stops in Somerville, with tracks running along existing rail beds.
Local officials and advocates are already way ahead, thinking about what changes might result.
Community members at numerous urban planning meetings over the last year have assumed that the proposed extension of the Green Line will mean big increases in activity (and rents) all along the line, as was the case with Davis Square after the subway station was built there during the 1984 Red Line extension project. Zamore said it revitalized that neighborhood.
Instead, transit watchers envision a mildly rejuvenated central city and a bustling, dense commercial district in the east.
"The fabric of the residential districts will be the same," Zamore said. "You have a valuable neighborhood here already."
In Ball Square, he predicted, "the restaurants will do even a little better." He imagined some new, small development running down to Magoun Square, less than half-mile away.
Davis Square was larger and more central to begin with, said city spokesman Tom Champion. "Every stop and every neighborhood has its different scale and density. It's not going to be a one-size-fits-all."
"Where do we want to grow?" Mayor Joe Curtatone asked rhetorically. The answer was clear: the strip of the city around McGrath Highway, running from Union Square to Lechmere.
Currently home to scrap metal yards, a UPS depot, a tow lot, and a large artist live/work building, the largely industrial area has "113 acres of underutilized land," Curtatone said. He wants new development in that area to balance out the city's tax rolls.
With three-quarters of its tax base coming from residential property taxes, the city is in a perpetual bind, Curtatone said. Businesses pay a higher tax rate and use fewer services.
However, there's a kink in the plan: The state transportation department also announced that it was sticking to its plan to site a maintenance facility in this zone.
"We've told them any type of facility cannot impede development," Curtatone said. If the transportation department continues with the current plan, he said, "We need to be able to develop above any facility."
(A recent study funded by the Kraft Family Foundation suggested building a stadium for the New England Revolution soccer team above an MBTA building near McGrath Highway.)
Kate Fichter, the transportation department's deputy project manager for the Green Line extension, said, "We continue to work with them to try to develop an idea that's mutually compatible."
As they think far ahead, advocates are hammering out the nitty-gritty next steps now - changes as simple as making sure station cross-streets have good sidewalks.
"How do you make the stations the most accessible to the most amount of people?" Zamore said.
Ellin Reisner, president of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership and a member of the Green Line citizen advisory committee, focused on creating bus connections to the line. "Union Square has five buses coming through, and they stop at different places," she said.
Most crucial is extending the bike path that currently runs through Davis Square. Zamore credited it for funneling people to the Red Line.
"The Community Path is going to bring a lot of riders to the T," Reisner agreed. A map from the Friends of the Community Paths projects the route right past the future Lowell Street stop, along the same right-of-way the new trains will travel.
Reisner said the transportation department didn't have the path on its "punch list" for the project she hoped a new requirement that its projects promote "healthy living" would change that.
In a way, the dream of the future brings back the past. About 50 years ago, Somerville had 25,000 more residents and 17 rail and trolley stops, Curtatone said, including a stop at Ball Square.
Photos show a train stopped right behind City Hall, as well as a handsome stone station at what is now Lexington Park.
The state and city want to get going: Not only is enthusiasm high, the Big Dig legal settlement that dictated the extension has a 2014 deadline.
The state transportation office plans to submit its draft environmental impact report to state and federal authorities "essentially as soon as possible," Fichter said. Public hearings and a public comment period will follow.
Zamore seemed optimistic. "We're in such a spectacular position," he said. Now, "we need to focus on good execution."
The Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership meets on Feb. 23. The Executive Office of Transportation posts updates and documents on www.greenlineextension.org.