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Partners’ move to Somerville is good for the region

Assembly Row in Somerville is a new mini-city that has been 15 years in the making. Many parts of it will begin to open starting in the spring.Federal Realty

SOMERVILLE — Walking around Assembly Row , you can see why Tom Menino and Marty Walsh would hate this place.

This new mini-city, rising in the shadow of Boston, has been 15 years in the making, and many parts of it will begin to open starting in the spring: restaurants, upscale outlet shops, apartments, office space, a hotel, a movie theater, a waterfront amphitheater, and the pièce de résistance: the first new T stop in nearly three decades.

Last week, the $1.5 billion mega development landed its first major office tenant: Partners HealthCare. The Boston hospital chain will consolidate administrative operations from 14 locations across the region and move into its own complex, bringing 4,500 workers, of which 3,700 will come from Boston.


It's a great example of regionalism. How many times have we watched local companies relocate back-office workers to cheaper states such as Rhode Island, New Hampshire, or Texas? I won't name any names, Fidelity Investments, but the fact we could retain a major employer in Massachusetts should be celebrated.

But that isn't how Menino interpreted the news about Partners. The outgoing Boston mayor lashed out at the health care giant for not keeping workers in his city, saying the company had lost its "social conscience."

Our lame-duck mayor was never into sharing the wealth. During his administration, he proudly and routinely poached from Cambridge. Case in point: Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which begins its move to the Innovation District next week. To him, that was job creation. Regionalism? That meant developing West Roxbury.

But Mayor-elect Walsh made a big deal on the campaign trail about working with Somerville and other surrounding cities to bring new businesses to the region. When the Partners move was a done deal, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone called him.

Assembly Row will have restaurants, upscale outlet shops, apartments, office space, a hotel, a movie theater, a waterfront amphitheater, and the pièce de résistance: the first new T stop in nearly three decades.Federal Realty

Walsh offered congratulations, but he was far from ecstatic.


"You don't want to lose 4,000 jobs out of the city of Boston. I'm not happy about it," Walsh told me this week. "When I talk about regionalization, I don't talk about it from taking one business from one city to the other. I talk about attracting new businesses to a region. There is a very big difference here. I wish Partners made a different decision."

Curtatone, whose city is usually on the losing side of corporate moves, said, "We're all sensitive to these types of decisions."

But as he shows off a nifty 3-D model of the 55-acre Assembly Row site — once an industrial area where Ford built Edsels — Curtatone points out how close the project is to Boston and how it stands to still benefit from all those workers being one Orange Line T stop away from Charlestown's Sullivan Square.

"A project like this has no borders," said Curtatone.

Regionalism experts will tell you Boston ultimately gets something out of this: a financially healthier Partners. The move, slated for late 2016, will save the company $10 million to $15 million annually in real estate costs. And, by the way, the chain will keep its headquarters in Boston, where it will have 45,000 employees even after a bunch of them start working in Somerville.

Assembly Row wasn't always a sure thing. For many years, it was best known as the on-again, off-again site of an Ikea. A local community group sued the Swedish furnishings chain, upset that a big-box store would be built on land fronting the Mystic River. Federal Realty came into the picture in 2005, and a year later, the company agreed to a land swap with Ikea and to help pay for a new T stop to resolve the suit.


In summer 2012, Ikea said it was pulling out and then sold its land to Federal. As one door shut, another opened. A few months later, Partners starting talking about buying that parcel for its new centralized office.

"I'm huge a believer in regionalism," said Don Briggs, president of Federal Realty Boston, who moved up from Maryland to oversee the project. As an outsider, he views Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville as just one big market whose time has come to pose a formidable draw for companies to grow or relocate here.

The challenge for Boston is not competition from its neighbors, said Briggs, but it is whether as a region "we can compete with Austin, Texas, South San Francisco, Brooklyn, never mind Beijing."

Assembly Row presents itself as "Boston's new BFF." That will be true for Partners and many others, but not if you're the mayor of Boston. IMHO.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.