City returns to its streetcar roots

A city of 75,000 in the core of the Boston region, Somerville, Massachusetts, is poised to be a leading example in the transformation of urban places.

Only 15 percent of residents currently live within a half-mile of a train station. In a few years, that percentage will rise to 85 as the Massachusetts city returns to its roots as a community of rail transit neighborhoods.

The demand for housing that is accessible to transit is growing nationwide, and by 2030 the supply of such housing needs to grow by 25 million units to meet demand, according to University of Utah researcher Arthur C. Nelson (see article at right). Supply can increase through new transit-oriented development (TOD) or by connecting existing housing to transit — both of which are occurring in Somerville. The city’s transformation has regional implications as Boston tries to retain its economic edge as a high-tech leader. New places for growth are needed — ideally imbedded in the urban fabric.

Five new stations — due to an expansion of the busiest light rail line in the US, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) Green Line — are set to be built in Somerville by 2016. An additional station along the MBTA Orange line is under construction in one of the biggest current TODs on the East Coast — Assembly Row (see Better! Cities & Towns, June 2012).

“Somerville is getting in front of the change,” says planner and author Jeff Speck, who was commissioned by the city to plan three of the station areas with Russell Preston. “The message I am giving to residents is that the ‘gold standard’ of trolleys is about to hit your neighborhood. Your neighborhood will change. Let’s have it change the way you want it to change.”

Three of the stations will serve new urban centers with room for significant new development, some relating to high-tech and research — Assembly Row, and the Green Line’s Washington Street and Union Square stations. The other three stations can support little new development but will connect, via transit, thousands of households to jobs. Placemaking is important — planners are creating a strong identity for each neighborhood (see image below).

Green Line stations: The five stations from Union Square to Ball Square are in Somerville

With the inevitable “creative class” development, Somerville’s land values are bound to rise. Preserving the city’s working-class character is a challenge when at least 50,000 residents will be newly connected to transit. “The goal is for Somerville to become more vibrant and more walkable, with better access to jobs,” says planning director George Proakis. “At the same time, the city needs to be a model of diversity, sustainability, and innovation. Somerville is unique and we want to remain the interesting place we are.”

At 4.3 square miles, Somerville is small yet among the most densely populated cities in the US. Most of the city consists of close-together houses on tight, walkable streets. The city borders Boston, Cambridge, and Medford in the core of the metro region — one of the strongest real estate markets in the US for commercial development. Boston also has one of the most educated populaces in the US — 38 percent of 18-34 year olds have college diplomas. Employment gains in high-tech and biomedical research are driving much of the commercial development. Adjacent Cambridge is a hotbed of that growth — especially areas around Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This development could spark growth in underutilized areas of Somerville, a little over a mile away — if the right urban environment is created.

“This could be a logical place for life sciences research to jump, but it will only do that if the kind of people who work in Cambridge’s mixed-use, walkable Kendall Square would want to live in this new area,” says David Dixon of Goody Clancy, which is designing a large TOD around the Green Line’s planned Washington Street station. Somerville already has a strong “creative class” component, and the city has seen a number of former industrial buildings redeveloped as artists’ lofts in an area called Brickbottom.

Brickbottom/Inner Belt

Brickbottom and an adjacent area called Inner Belt, both gritty and industrial, total 180 acres — the largest potential TOD district in Somerville. Most of the city’s new development will go into these areas and a few others that comprise 15 percent of the city’s land. Brickbottom and Inner Belt will be transformed in the coming decades in the wake of the Green Line’s Washington Street station, which will serve the area.

Existing buildings in Brickbottom/Inner Belt. Source: Goody Clancy

The long-term buildout plan for Brickbottom/Inner Belt will require major connectivity improvements. The circle with the ‘T’ is the planned Washington Street station. Source: Goody Clancy

Brickbottom has a street grid and residents would like to see the area retain its funky mix of uses, including light industrial and even a school bus parking lot, according to Ben Carlson, the project manager for Goody Clancy. Some of the streets lack sidewalks and street trees, and streetscape improvements will be key to bringing development and walkability to the area. One of the planned new public spaces is a loft parking lot that could, with some infrastructure investment, be suitable for “pop-up” festivals and markets. A walking path will enter the area along the Green Line and serve as a new amenity linking residents to nature and to destinations like the transit stop.

Cut off from the rest of the city by railroad tracks and the elevated, limited-access McGrath Highway, Brickbottom nevertheless has immediate potential, especially the parts that are adjacent to the planned new station. Replacing the McGrath Highway, which serves no critical purpose, with an at-grade thoroughfare is a long-term idea that would make this neighborhood really take off, planners say.

Across the tracks, the Inner Belt has no street grid and urbanism will have to be created from scratch — but the area has some advantages. The northern boundary of Inner Belt is Washington Street, where the new transit station will go. That street already has a Walk Score of 86, which is “very walkable.”

A major Boston developer, Corcoran Jennison, owns a strip shopping center and affordable housing complex aimed at senior citizens on Washington Street. The firm is looking to redevelop the site as a mixed-use TOD, doubling the density and adding market-rate housing while preserving the affordable units, says Carlson. With the transit service, the parking ratio could be cut in half and higher rents charged for the market-rate units — which makes the numbers work for redevelopment.

Washington Street needs to be “brought to life” as a complete street, according to Goody Clancy, which should get development moving at the edge of the Inner Belt. Other parts of the neighborhood will require major infrastructure investments to improve connectivity and build walkable streets. That’s a long-term opportunity that may take 20 years to complete.

The neighborhood squares

Beyond Washington Street, the Green Line will have three stations in Somerville — Gilman Square, Magoun Square/Lowell Street, and Ball Square. The final stop is at College Avenue and Tufts University in Medford.

The three Somerville stops are planned in densely populated neighborhoods, where design will promote placemaking and infill development. The current “squares” are intersections that historically served as neighborhood hubs. At Gilman Square, Speck worked with the city to design an actual square. The current intersection is rearranged to shape a small public space bounded by small new buildings — the city has money to acquire sites for building (see image).

Gilman Square current view

Gilman Square transormed rendering. Speck & Associates with Russell Preston/Carrico Illustration

At Lowell Street, the plan is to improve the visual connection to Magoun Square, a couple of short blocks away. Key to that plan is a new building to create a terminating vista and orient people from the station to the square.

Ball Square has a strong commercial core but a huge intersection that hampers walkability. The city plans to tame that intersection, making it more pedestrian friendly, while fostering some infill development.

Overall, Somerville is a community with more residential units than jobs by a 2-to-1 margin, planners say. One big idea is to bring more jobs to change that ratio. Up to 5 million square feet of workplace development could be built at Brickbottom/Inner Belt and up to 1.75 million square feet at Assembly Row, says Carlson. Assembly Row is being developed by Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is doing retail and office, and Avalon Bay, which is doing residential.

Major urban research centers, planned or underway, in the Somerville, Cambridge, North Boston subregion. Source: Goody Clancy

Goals for affordability

Maintaining affordable housing is a priority for the city. Somerville was the recipient of a $1.8 million sustainable communities grant in 2010 from US Housing and Urban Development — which made the whole plan possible, Proakis says. Of that money, $600,000 was allocated toward planning and $1.2 million to property acquisition for permanent affordable housing. The plan is to buy land, sell to developers who are good at affordable housing, and create a land bank. A zoning provision was put in place to require that a percentage of new units be built as affordable housing. The comprehensive plan calls for 6,000 new housing units, 1,200 of them long-term affordable, and 30,000 new jobs, Proakis says.

The city is reforming its zoning code to make sure the development creates an appealing urban environment. A form-based code is being drafted for Brickbottom and around the three squares. The Inner Belt will have more flexible planned-unit development regulations, but these will also include graphic urban design standards, Proakis says.

Union Square in Somerville— an area that is already transforming to a hip urban center with significant development potential— will get a station on a branch of the Green Line. The city has already completed substantial planning for this site.

New Urbanism in Somerville will take the form of intense commercial development with multifamily residential near transit. The older, finer-grained parts of the city will acquire stronger centers and better public transit. Yet the changes require little or no historic fabric be demolished. The big changes planned to help knit the city back together are a far cry from the careless urban renewal of the middle 20th Century.

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