Somerville has no right being as hot as it is right now. The city is tiny, boasting less than one-tenth the land area of Boston. And what little land Somerville does have looks like much of Boston. It’s a city of neighborhood squares and triple-deckers, of narrow streets, and of industrial lots decades past their prime. That’s a common inheritance in and around Boston, but Somerville has parlayed it into two separate billion-dollar real-estate-development initiatives, one in Assembly Square, one in Union Square.
So the four-square-mile city is punching far above its weight right now. That’s because Somerville knows that standing still isn’t an option. The city realizes change is coming, one way or another, so civic leaders have rolled up their sleeves to make that change work for Somerville.
The redevelopment of Assembly Square has already gotten its fair share of attention. But consider what’s happening in Union Square. Last week, the city tapped a team led by the Chicago firm Magellan Development Group to lead an ambitious rebuilding there. Magellan, which emerged from a field of 10 development teams, will take charge of a 12-acre urban-renewal district Somerville created in Union Square last year. The urban-renewal effort aims to construct 2.3 million square feet worth of new buildings. It’s Somerville’s initial effort to capitalize on Green Line streetcar service, which will arrive in Union Square in three years.
Magellan’s urban-renewal district is currently a mixed bag of publicly and privately owned parcels with low-slung industrial properties and strips of single-story retail buildings. All of it is outdated; it represents the best of what Union Square could hope for in, say, the 1970s. The area has stayed that way because Somerville lacked a way to transform it into something else.
But the arrival of Green Line trolleys, which will put Union Square a mere 10-minute ride from downtown Boston, completely changes the neighborhood’s potential. Somerville has spent years preparing to remake the gritty, weed-strewn corners around the future Green Line hub. The city up-zoned the blocks around the Green Line. It asked would-be developers of its urban renewal zone to buy into a robust community vision for the neighborhood — one that places a heavy emphasis on local businesses and mixed-income housing.
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