Last week’s announcement that Ikea is walking away from Assembly Square in Somerville caused a jolt, because for the past 15 years, Ikea was Assembly Square. Ikea has been the redevelopment project’s headliner since it came to town in the late 1990s; without the Swedish furniture retailer, the development at Assembly Square wouldn’t resonate as widely as it does, and the news of a retailer pulling out of the project wouldn’t cause nearly the same sort of stir.
Even so, Ikea’s exit is the best thing that could have happened to Assembly Square. Losing Ikea means the 66-acre riverfront development will likely take longer to build out. But when the project is finished, it’ll be a much better product without a giant blue furniture store looming over it.
When Ikea was still in the mix, Assembly Square was a schizophrenic redevelopment project: dozens of acres of transit-oriented apartments, shops, and office space, abutting a big-box retailer that operates on a regional scale. Those two, in turn, abutted a strip mall. It’s an odd combination. Each component had no logical relationship with the others, other than the fact that each arose as a response to economic rot.
Assembly Square was once a Ford factory, and later, it was a failed shopping mall. Municipalities frequently turn to strip malls and huge single-use retailers as quick ways to plug the property tax gaps that failed commercial and industrial facilities leave behind. Assembly Square can now withstand Ikea’s defection because the redevelopment project is no longer a quick revenue play. Instead, it has evolved into a true neighborhood-building enterprise.
Ikea executives build stores based on acreage, highway access, and population density. Customers drive moderate distances to descend an off-ramp, load up their vehicles with several boxes of disassembled furniture, maybe grab a cheap plate of meatballs, and then return to their homes. The store thrives as a closed economic entity. This is why the retailer can pass on Assembly Square, with its Orange Line access and impressive frontage on the Mystic River, in favor of a commercial park overlooking a Stoughton highway. It’s big box retailing writ large, and it’s why there’s long been tension between Ikea and the rest of the Assembly Square project.
The current incarnation of Assembly Square was born out of a fight against the sort of big-box development Ikea specializes in. The old Assembly Square Mall could have easily been replaced by the sort of commercial sprawl that surrounds Ikea’s Stoughton store. It wasn’t, because Somerville residents rallied together and advocated for something better. They argued that Assembly Square’s location — along the river, on a rapid transit line, and minutes from downtown Boston — presented a special development opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered on sprawl. They talked about building mixed-use blocks oriented around people, not cars. They lobbied for an Orange Line stop. And they took their complaints to court.
Assembly Square’s lead developer, Federal Realty Investment Trust, bought into the project in the middle of litigation, and quickly committed to building the kind of dense mixed-use development the Somerville activists were demanding. Federal will fill its 45 acres with apartments, shops, and offices. How Federal is building — in compact, walkable city blocks — is just as important as what’s getting built. The developer is creating a neighborhood that is built so distinct uses reinforce one another. The new subway stop will allow the development to draw in residents and visitors as an urban square, rather than as a subdivision sitting off the Fellsway.
It’s striking just how incompatible with this vision Ikea is. One is built around people and sidewalks, and the other depends on huge volumes of automotive traffic, even when it sits alongside a subway line. One is urban, and the other is suburban. There’s no value judgment there. But Ikea doesn’t have to be in Assembly Square to succeed, and Assembly Square needs builders willing to run with the momentum Federal is creating. Whoever winds up buying Ikea’s 12 acres will end up pursuing a vastly different development project than Ikea chased. It will likely look a lot like what Federal is already building — blocks of residences, shops, and offices that take advantage of Assembly Square’s unique strengths, and reinforce the neighborhood-building that’s under way.Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.