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Boston-area communities vie to be the next Somerville

Restaurants, independent stores, and coffee shops are altering the climate in Somerville.

Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe

Restaurants, independent stores, and coffee shops are altering the climate in Somerville.

When Ed Greable takes buyers house shopping in Medford, the broker hits one selling point hard: “Medford is the new Somerville.”

In Chelsea, City Manager Jay Ash has started courting Boston restaurateurs and residential developers with an irresistible pitch: “Chelsea is going to be the next Somerville.”

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For chef Adam Nazzaro and his partners in the new Farmer’s Market Kitchen, it was Watertown that exuded the vibe: “It could be the next Somerville.”

Lisa Wong, the mayor of Fitchburg, says the magic has touched down there. “We’re Somerville, but with outdoor rock climbing and open space.”

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Never mind that until recently, transforming into Somerville didn’t suggest an enviable municipal trajectory. Or that some still-gritty parts of Somerville are themselves vying to be the “next Somerville.”

RELATED: Somerville worries it’s growing too hip

As Somerville housing prices rise and the city “turns into Cambridge,” in the words of real estate broker Stephen Bremis , contenders are vying for the on-deck slot Somerville is shedding: the hip, genuine, and affordable alternative to a more prestigious town. The loveable sidekick to the star.

But it’s not easy to become the next Somerville.

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Urban studies specialists say several factors must combine to spark an invasion, for better or worse, of knowledge workers, foodies, and bicyclists. A town needs to be near, or have easy access to, an orbit-worthy city or neighborhood. Public transportation is a must, with subways, trains, and even water taxis, preferable to buses. A high proportion of rental housing is key, as is a city leader with vision.

For a town to grab the “it” factor, public transportation is a must. Somerville is home to the Assembly Square stop on the Orange Line, the first new T rapid-transit stop to open since 1987.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

For a town to grab the “it” factor, public transportation is a must. Somerville is home to the Assembly Square stop on the Orange Line, the first new T rapid-transit stop to open since 1987.

Artists and gay men without children have tended to arrive first — groups identified as “risk-oblivious,” said Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist and author. Restaurants, coffee shops,and independent stores come next, followed quickly by the academics, software engineers, and lawyers.

“You can’t just create it,” said Robert Sampson, a Harvard University professor who studies urban change.

Sampson points to Michigan, where in 2003 Governor Jennifer Granholm launched a “Cool Cities Initiative.” It was aimed at retaining college graduates, but as the Michigan Daily wrote in 2008, “East Lansing spent its grant on a few free wireless hotspots and public art and gardens in boulevards.”

These newly hot neighborhoods attract what are called knowledge workers and the “creative class,’’ who in turn often displace working-class residents who can’t afford the skyrocketing housing prices, much less put up with the beekeepers and chicken farmers who have suddenly arrived in their community.

Sometimes, the skilled, educated, and hip expand into industrial areas, where there are no residents to yell “not in my backyard,’’ said Florida, director of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, an urbanism-focused think tank.

Henry Alford, a humorist who spent a long weekend mocking Brooklyn’s hipster scene for the New York Times, also analyzed the alchemy of what makes a neighborhood flourish. “You need a lot of raw, affordable space, and you need young people who have been to, or know about, the LAST hipster neighborhood,” he said in an interview with the Globe.

KNOWLEDGE WORKERS: The skilled and educated are drawn to the new amenities.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

KNOWLEDGE WORKERS: The skilled and educated are drawn to the new amenities.

‘Somerville claims to be the only city in the country that conducts a survey with questions such as: ‘How satisfied are you with life in general?’ and ‘How satisfied are you with Somerville?’

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Brooklyn’s “Williamsburg is, to many eyes, a response to Portland, [Ore.,] which, to many eyes, was a response to Seattle,” he explained. “Everyone is working from the same stew pot of flannel shirts and micro-batched chervil.

“But ideally, each new iteration adds something new. Seattle brought us coffee. Portland, an obsession with the local and the sustainable. Williamsburg, really excellent beard care.”

Somerville’s contribution to that list may be a focus on happiness. The city claims to be the only one in the country that conducts a survey with questions such as: “How satisfied are you with life in general?” and “How satisfied are you with Somerville?”

RELATED | Photos: Hipsters in Somerville

Satisfaction is something prior leaders may have not wanted to measure, back when Somerville was “Slumerville,” and the city was known for meat packing factories and manufacturing plants, not celebrity chefs like Ana Sortun , and musical festivals such as PorchFest and HONK!

These days, 26.4 percent of Somerville’s residents hold bachelor’s degrees and 25.9 percent have a graduate or professional degree, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated data for 2013, all well above statewide averages.

Fred McCullough, 27, and Rachel Insinga, 28, walked through Somerville’s Union Square  on a recent evening.

Gretchen Ertl for the Boston Globe

Fred McCullough, 27, and Rachel Insinga, 28, walked through Somerville’s Union Square on a recent evening.

A just-released study by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities found that Somerville is a city other mayors look to for policy ideas. A map posted online by the city shows that municipal leaders from as far away as Pakistan and China have visited City Hall to learn how the city uses real-time data to solve problems and create policy.

Along the way, housing prices have risen. The median price for a single-family house in 1993 was $125,500, compared with $544,350 in 2013 and $545,000 so far this year, according to the Warren Group. Condos selling for $1 million are no longer unheard of.

A new Orange Line station opened in Assembly Square in September, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council is predicting that Somerville’s rental rates, already financially stressing many residents, will rise by as much as 67 percent in some areas, as five Green Line Extension stations open by 2020.

With Somerville housing prices rising, finding the next Somerville is all the more urgent.

In Fitchburg, Wong says her city will be enhanced by the $150 million state and federal governments are spending on public transit. “It will be a 50-minute ride between downtown Fitchburg and Cambridge and Somerville,” she said.

Nazzaro, the Watertown chef, is encouraged by the people he sees walking around town with rolled-up yoga mats, and the more than 800 high-end apartments that have been built or approved there.

Over in Chelsea, Ash says his city will have six new quality hotels — and with them, upscale visitors — by mid-2016, a situation he contrasts with the old Chelsea. “The only hotel in town rented by the hour, not the day,” he said.

Greable, the real estate agent, says Medford will get a boost from the College Avenue Green Line station scheduled to open by 2020 (with another station, near Route 16, possible). Real estate is already heating up, he says, and bidding wars aren’t uncommon.

“I’m working with a couple now and they just lost out on a place,” he said. “I said, ‘Maybe you want to look in Malden?’ ”

Malden? Yes, you know — the new Medford.

Related:

Somerville worries it’s growing too hip

Photos: Hipsters in Somerville

More Massachusetts real estate coverage

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.
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