Lynn, Lynn, city of promise and opportunity. Lynn, Lynn, city of rich culture, great diversity, and a 20-minute train ride to Boston.
That may sound hopelessly aspirational to those who think of Lynn as an unlovely place, best known for rough industrial roots, polluted beaches, and a reputation for sin. But Lynn is changing, or trying to. It has new downtown loft apartments. It has the Nightshade Noodle Bar, a hot restaurant whose chef was recently nominated as a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award. Soliyarn, a smart-textile company, is moving there. And until recently, Lynn did offer train service to Boston.
Then, in October, the MBTA abruptly shut down the Lynn commuter rail station, to address what it called “station deterioration issues.” These included crumbling concrete on the station’s staircase and platform and a structurally damaged elevator. How could something that was only built in 1991 fall apart so quickly? Why did it take so long to fix it? Did the T really not know it was falling apart? Rebuilding it now is essential for safety reasons. But shutting it means that the city’s plans for a better future have hit a slow zone and could be derailed.
“The whole strategy for the downtown is based around the idea of transit-oriented development,” says Lynn Mayor Jared Nicholson, who personifies the changing face of Lynn. Nicholson, 37, grew up in Sudbury, went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and moved to Lynn — where his great-grandfather graduated from Lynn Classical High School — after he got a fellowship to provide free legal help to small businesses. Nicholson, who is now married with two young sons, served on the school committee before being elected mayor in 2021. Since then, his administration has produced “Vision Lynn,” a comprehensive planning document that promises a city “where all community members have the housing, transportation access, social connections, and educational or economic opportunities to live a fulfilling life.” The plan will be presented to Lynn’s city council and planning board later this month.
Transit-oriented development revolves around the theory that if you build the right combination of housing and retail near a train station, people will flock there — and the local economy will flourish. Greater Boston has embraced it, although it’s becoming more controversial under a new state law, the MBTA Communities Act, that requires communities in the T service area to allow at least one area of multifamily housing. Some suburban communities are fighting those requirements.
Not Lynn. Nicholson says the city already has the underlying zoning capacity that’s necessary to support the up to 5,517 new multifamily units the law requires of Lynn, and has received interim compliance approval from the state. Last December, Lynn also adopted an inclusionary zoning policy that allocates 10 percent of all new housing units to be affordable by those earning 60 percent of the Boston area’s median income. Meanwhile, there are 1,067 market rate housing units (which pre-date the MBTA Communities Act and the inclusionary zoning requirement) and 35,000 square feet of commercial space already in Lynn’s development pipeline within a half mile of the Central Square commuter rail station.
But with the closing of that station, the transit piece of this development puzzle vanished. Now, trains run through Lynn. They don’t stop there — except for a flag stop at the General Electric plant that’s restricted to use by GE employees. The decrepit Central Square station is chained up and blocked off. Anyone who now wants to travel by train from Lynn to Boston is left with two options: They can drive or take a shuttle bus to Swampscott and pick up the commuter rail there. Or they can drive or take a bus to Revere’s Wonderland station, which is the last stop on the Blue Line, roughly 5 often traffic-choked miles from the shuttered Lynn commuter rail station. According to the MBTA, a new Lynn station won’t be open for business until at least 2030. A temporary platform will take 12 to 18 months to build — and Nicholson says he had to fight hard to get a commitment from the T to build one. He also had to fight for that shuttle bus to Swampscott. He said he tried, but failed, to convince the T to keep part of the station open while it was being overhauled.
For Lynn, the story is outrageous, heartbreaking and familiar all at the same time. The city has long been a poster child for the cause of what is now called “transit equity.” Or, as state Senator Brendan P. Crighton of Lynn puts it more bluntly: “Historically, we have been screwed when it comes to transportation investment and access.”
Like Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Salem, and Waltham, Lynn has only commuter rail, making it the largest city within the Route 128 belt without rapid transit. That means it costs more to travel by train to Boston, and service is less frequent. And that, says Nicholson, has been “a huge barrier for growth and also for access to jobs and housing and health care.”
There was one moment in time when the politics seemed to tilt in Lynn’s favor when it came to delivering rapid transit to the city. In the 1970s, Governor Frank Sargent, a Republican, wanted to extend the Blue Line from Revere to Lynn, and his successor, Governor Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, shared that goal. But according to Fred Salvucci, who served as transportation secretary during the Dukakis years and has influenced much of the state’s transportation policy, a newly elected Lynn mayor opposed the plan. As Salvucci first recalled it for the Lynn Item, Mayor-elect Antonio Marino held a press conference during which he said, “The feds will not shove an expanded Blue Line down Lynn’s throat.” That killed the prospect of federal funding, says Salvucci.
Extending the Blue Line is not discussed much anymore, and it would be difficult to achieve anyway, because of subsequent development and state environmental laws that make it more complicated to build through wetlands. Transit advocates are instead pushing for better, faster, electrified regional rail. It’s a great goal, but when will it happen? Lynn no longer has a working station for any kind of train service.
A plan only consultants could love
Why does this city get so little respect? US Representative Seth Moulton, whose district includes Lynn, says it’s because many people who live there are “poor and immigrant.” According to the latest US census data, about 49 percent of Lynn’s population is white; 41 percent is Hispanic or Latino; and the rest are Black or Asian. The median household income is $63,922 — far below the median income of $114,046 in neighboring Swampscott, where former governor Charlie Baker lives.
But Lynn is growing. The city’s population is 101,000 — and growing. Moulton, who has pushed other big transit projects like east-west rail and connecting North and South Stations, faults MBTA leaders, among other state leaders, for a lack of overall vision. Failing to see Lynn’s potential is just one example of it. Lynn, he points out, is roughly the same distance to Boston as much of Brooklyn is to Manhattan, and Brooklyn “is one of the hottest places to live in North America. Think about the difference. How many trains go from Brooklyn to Manhattan? Literally dozens.”
The closed commuter rail station in Lynn also has a garage, owned by the MBTA, that is slated to be demolished. City leaders are trying to get the T to commit to turning it into a site that can be developed. Asked about that, a T spokeswoman said, “We are in the process of evaluating available options.” Moulton backs the idea of a public-private partnership to develop the site and says: “It would bring additional money to the project, but the T seems incapable of doing something almost any other transit system does in its sleep.”
Lynn has had some powerful political advocates. Why can’t it get results?
Thomas W. McGee of Lynn was until recently the longest serving speaker of the House in Massachusetts history, holding that position from 1975 to 1985. His son, Thomas M. McGee, served in the House and Senate and chaired the transportation committee. McGee, the son, was also elected mayor of Lynn in 2017 and chose not to run for reelection. Earlier this year, Governor Maura Healey appointed him to the MBTA board of directors. He didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this piece.
But now, the political stars could be once again aligning for Lynn. Healey has made equity on all fronts, including transportation, a goal of her administration. Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll hails from Salem, which has a big stake in improved commuter rail service. Crighton is now the Senate chair of the transportation committee. And McGee’s spot on the T board might help Lynn’s prospects.
The T’s new general manager, Phillip Eng, visited Lynn a few weeks ago. Part of the visit included riding the commuter rail to Swampscott and taking the shuttle bus back to Lynn. In a statement issued by the T, Eng called it “a great opportunity to visit Lynn, see the station and garage” and hear directly from local leaders “about how we can best serve the city and support their economic growth.” Since then, there has been talk of restarting ferry service between Lynn and Boston as a mitigation option for periodic closures of the Sumner Tunnel.
That’s good news for Lynn, but it’s not all it needs.
“A ferry is amazing,” says Nicholson. “We’ll all be really excited about it. But it’s not rapid transit.”
Nor is it commuter rail. According to a T spokeswoman, the Lynn station won’t reopen before 2030 because three bridges within the footprint of the station need repairs and/or replacement during the $72 million project. Meanwhile, design work for the platform is proceeding.
Salvucci says the T has long been “in the habit of stretching projects out and always studying them and never getting them done.” He sees it as a backhanded way to spend less money. “The right way to build a relatively simple project like Lynn station is to not use the traditional state construction plan, which is probably designed to maximize consultants,” says Salvucci. “If the bureaucracy thinks the people higher up don’t want to spend the money, they use [the traditional construction process] to dance the clock.”
A long drawn-out process definitely works against Lynn’s hopes for revival.
Developers Hashmat and Hourmat Rauf of the BuildAR Group have been building in Lynn since 2010. Buying heavily into the concept of Lynn as a city of promise, opportunity, and a convenient train ride to Boston, the brothers are constructing a mixed-use building on Mount Vernon Street, located across the street from the commuter rail station. Construction is due to be completed by October. The sleek building will feature 27 one-bedroom rental units with high-quality finishes and is a short walk to what is now a closed station.
With that, the Rauf brothers face a dramatically different real estate reality than they expected when they started. The target audience for the rental units was “younger professionals,” says Hashmat Rauf. “Someone who would just take this commuter rail 20 minutes into the city.” Rauf also says that a grocery chain was interested in the entire first floor. However, once the commuter rail station closed down, “they changed their mind and opened in Dorchester instead.” There was also interest from a few bars and restaurants, but that shut down when the commuter rail station did.
Unless the T accelerates the process of rebuilding the station, it could very well be Lynn, Lynn, city of lost promise and missed opportunity. What a cruel and sinful outcome for a city that deserves better.
This story was updated on June 26 to correct the reference to Thomas W. McGee’s tenure as House speaker.