In city's east, an ambitious renewal plan

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / April 2, 2009
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Residents and visitors alike know "Slummerville" is long gone. Somerville's reputation has gone through the roof, spurred by bustling Davis Square with its T stop, theater, and restaurants.

The industrial part of the city, however, has failed to keep up.

Now, city officials and advocates envision big changes in the east of the city, replacing shopping plazas and warehouses with tall buildings to attract new businesses and house more people. About 15 percent of the 4.1-square-mile community could be transformed.

That zone would be startlingly different from the existing, tight-packed triple-deckers. "We need to be able to grow," said Monica Lamboy, director of the city's strategic planning and community development department.

City officials hope that if they build it, companies will come.

Somerville needs new business. Though some called Davis Square the Paris of the '90s, small-scale housing and retail don't pay enough taxes to cover the costs of city services, said Wig Zamore of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership.

Lamboy estimated the city has about 400 acres for potential redevelopment in Assembly Square, Inner Belt, and Boynton Yards.

New mass transit has created the spark. Assembly Square is getting an Orange Line stop; the Green Line extension, which has a 2014 due date, will cut through the Inner Belt and cross the city to Medford.

Currently, most people know Assembly Square as the Home Depot off Interstate 93. That's going to change. "Somerville's development strategy is based on a mixed-use, transit-oriented approach," said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone in a prepared statement. "Where we have large developable parcels, our goal isn't just to create commercial activity, but to build new neighborhoods."

According to city documents, the plan for the square will add 1 million square feet of retail; 1.75 million square feet of office space; and 2,100 units of housing, at a cost of an estimated $1.36 billion. City officials and legislators consider the project a prime candidate for federal stimulus funds.

Federal Realty, owner of the Assembly Square Mall, has just about finished preparing for a new Ikea and is slated to start building a road this spring or summer, Lamboy said.

Next on the development chain is Union Square/Boynton Yards, home to a future spur of the Green Line. Today's Union Square houses restaurants, ethnic groceries, and auto body shops. Boynton Yards, along the Cambridge line, has a shopping center and light industry.

Here, the city wants to create towers on scrap metal lots. Curtatone has proposed new zoning that would promote much denser and taller development.

The Board of Aldermen has until April 30 to approve the changes, Lamboy said, or the process goes back to the drawing board. She expects it to proceed. Two previous plans didn't.

Cross under McGrath Highway and you reach the Inner Belt, whose future is haziest. The wedge of land sits between East Cambridge and Charlestown. It has a UPS depot, other warehouses, and a single residential complex: the 150-unit Brickbottom artists' live/work buildings.

The MBTA recently decided to site the maintenance facility for the expanded Green Line in this area. Curtatone opposed the decision, fearing it would impede development. The city is just starting to create a master plan for the Inner Belt, Lamboy said.

Meanwhile, the Kraft Family Foundation funded a study that recommended putting a New England Revolution soccer stadium there.

Zamore envisioned "wholesale redevelopment," with the artists' building as the anchor. Currently, there are so few roads that you can barely get into the space. There's no entrance from the highway.

"It's a really open area to be creative," Lamboy said.

Community watchdog Alex Pirie expressed skepticism about the city's high hopes, calling them "kind of pie-in-the-sky. . . . Those transformations take a long time" and the city needs tax money now.

Pirie also thought there wasn't enough land to create sufficient commercial development to meet the city's economic needs.

He attributed the Davis Square renaissance not only to transit but to the proximity of Tufts University, which provides a natural market for housing, restaurants, and shops.

However, Zamore said that complete urban land transformation requires cities to create detailed plans for land use long before they have identified potential developers and groups for the space. He pointed to East Cambridge: Kendall Square took 20 years to come to fruition but "they built exactly what was planned."

City officials are embracing reinvention. "We are going to kick off a citywide planning/visioning process," Lamboy said. "What do we want to be when we grow up?"

Danielle Dreilinger can be reached at

'Our goal isn't just to create commercial activity, but to build new neighborhoods,' says Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.