Next to the Prospect Street bridge in Somerville, a bright yellow crane towers alongside the quickly rising concrete core of an apartment building that will be taller than anything around it. Steps away is a brand new MBTA Green Line platform.
Just across the tracks to the south, at the Boynton Yards complex, a gleaming lab building stands next to row after row of picked-apart cars awaiting recycling. And in the nearby Brickbottom neighborhood, work is underway to build a 200,000-square-foot life-science lab next door to an artist community.
Somerville is a city on the cusp of a huge transition. The first branch of the Green Line extension is set to open March 21, at Union Square, with other stops opening in May.
The train has been long in coming, but real estate developers haven’t waited. Construction is underway on 1.3 million square feet of lab and residential property along the extension, with three times that much more in the works — aiming to transform more than three dozen acres of low-lying industrial warehouses and auto body shops into the region’s newest lab cluster.
“Everything we’re seeing in Somerville now isn’t happening by accident,” said former mayor Joe Curtatone. “The state didn’t come to us and say, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ We fought for it. We did it as a community.”
In 2019 Somerville overhauled its zoning code for the first time in decades, allowing for high-rise buildings in largely industrial zones near the extended Green Line — a $2.3 billion project that will ferry riders from Lechmere out through Somerville and up to Tufts University in Medford. It’s a major change. Despite being New England’s most densely populated city, Somerville long had very few buildings taller than a few stories. The new zoning will allow millions of square feet of new development that the city hopes will add millions of dollars to its tax base.
Newly elected Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, a longtime city councilor, has for years advocated for commercial development to bolster Somerville’s tax base, contending that it would ease the burden on residential property owners. Just a few years ago, only 18 percent of the city’s operating budget came from commercial property, she said. In Boston that figure is more than 70 percent.
“One of the biggest things that we can do for affordability is to bring in new commercial development, because that helps the people who live here now — have lived here for generations — to continue living here,” Ballantyne said.
Yet there are some growing pains amid all the new construction.
City Councilor Matt McLaughlin, a Somerville native, said much of the city he grew up in — where it was possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,000 — is gone. The zoning changes were intended to alleviate the pressures of a skyrocketing cost of living by creating affordable housing, not necessarily to usher in a new lab boom.
“We really were kind of desperate to get commercial development at all,” McLaughlin said. “All the places that we saw people want to build housing, they now want to build lab space. . . . I don’t think anyone anticipated that.”
Either way, the rezoning, the Green Line extension, and booming demand to live and work so close to downtown Boston and Kendall Square have combined to draw a stream of developers, like John Fenton and Rob Dickey, whose DLJ Capital Partners and Leggat McCall Properties are turning several scraggly industrial blocks of South and Windsor streets into a six-building lab and residential project they call Boynton Yards.
Their first lab, a nine-story building that rises from a neighborhood of two- and three-story houses, is already built and filled with tenants of Cambridge-based biotech venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering. A second is under construction, and DLJ and Leggat McCall have approval to build two more lab and office buildings, along with 440 apartments in a pair of 20-story and 16-story towers.
DLJ and Leggat have purchased a low-slung building on Windsor Street that today houses Taza Chocolate and apparel-printing company QRST, and have an agreement to buy the adjacent Nissenbaum scrapyard, where the partnership could build yet another 1 million square feet of labs.
Building lab space was an obvious choice for a site so close to Kendall Square, Fenton said, but the vision of creating a mixed-use, multilayered project with deep community roots was also attractive.
“Somerville does not have a lot of open space, but Somerville has this rich residential community,” Dickey said. “The commercial [development] is the piece that drives the economics and allows this to all happen, but the other stuff is also critical to making it work.”
A similar theory is at work just north of the train tracks, where the concrete core of a new residential tower is rising higher than any building around it.
It’s the first of many buildings planned by development firm US2, which is leading a $2 billion project on 15 acres that will eventually yield 2.4 million square feet of labs and offices, 1,000 residential units (of which 200 are defined as permanently affordable), several acres of parks, and 11 civic spaces. The first three buildings — a 194,000-square-foot lab, a midrise apartment building, and a 25-story apartment tower all in a row along Prospect Street, steps from the new Green Line station — are scheduled to open next spring.
US2 president Greg Karczewski said the ultimate goal for the project is to reestablish Union Square as Somerville’s commercial downtown. An extended Green Line will bring transit access to 80 percent of the city’s residents, Karczewski said — a huge change.
“It’s already a very desirable residential location, and so part of the vision here is really to bring new commercial spaces in next to transit to create that live, work, play environment,” Karczewski said.
There’s even more development coming. Real estate firm Spaulding & Slye Investments is quietly shopping around a triangle of land where Somerville Avenue meets McGrath Highway — sandwiched between a glass company and a dumpster operator — that could hold two towers, industry sources say. They’re marketing it as the Gateway Innovation Center. (Spaulding & Slye declined to comment.)
Meanwhile, just a quarter-mile east in Brickbottom — an industrial zone that’s also home to an artists’ community — there are plans for up to 1 million square feet of new development on either side of the Green Line extension community path, near the East Somerville Station scheduled to open later this year. North River Leerink, a joint venture of North River Co. and Leerink Development, controls 12 acres, mostly warehouses, there and has hired design firm Gensler to plan the site.
They’re well aware that nurturing the existing artist community will be key, said co-managing director Doug Gensler.
“It is a transformation district within the city of Somerville,” Gensler said. “It has the opportunity to become something very different than it is today.”
There’s clear excitement within the development community about Somerville, between the new zoning and the Green Line and land and construction costs that are generally lower than Cambridge or downtown Boston. They see a chance to unlock enormous potential.
But, of course, there are people who call this corner of Somerville home — and they want to make sure their voices are heard in what comes next. Jill Slosburg-Ackerman, an owner-occupant in the Brickbottom Artists building at 1 Fitchburg St., said the “extraordinary” changes of the past several years have been hard on some residents. The Green Line construction, for instance, has been loud and disruptive. But, she said, there’s “wonderful” opportunity for developers to create a safer, more vibrant neighborhood than the dingy warehouses there today.
“We can forge good working relationships — sympathetic, respectful relationships. That’s when it’s going to be good for everybody,” Slosburg-Ackerman said. “It could be really good if the neighborhood is no longer a place where there are abandoned buildings that are rarely used.”