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Somerville’s Amazon bid emphasizes proximity to universities, urban core

Somerville’s bid aims to put Amazon close to the urban action.Reed Saxon/Associated Press/File 2012

Boston has a very local rival in the courtship of Amazon and its new headquarters.

The City of Somerville on Friday released a proposal that takes a markedly different approach than its big neighbor to wooing Amazon — using the T to knit together separate parcels over a roughly 2-mile stretch that straddles three cities. The project would begin at North Station in Boston and range out along either the Orange Line to Assembly Row or the Green Line extension to Union Square.

Boston, by contrast, focused its bid on one big site — Suffolk Downs, the race track on the city’s border with Revere.


Somerville said its proposal offers close proximity to Harvard, MIT, and Tufts in an already bustling urban environment, where Amazon employees could network right outside their offices.

“The juxtaposition of diverse industries and people increases the likelihood of innovation and success. We can offer that environment easily to Amazon,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said in the Amazon submission.

Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker took a much broader approach to suggesting locations, releasing an Amazon proposal Friday that included 26 different sites around Massachusetts, from mill buildings in the Berkshires to a golf course in New Bedford.

The state’s grab-bag of sites also includes Suffolk Downs and three other development areas in Boston: the Seaport District, the Harrison-Albany corridor in the South End, and properties along the Mass. Pike, mainly in Allston and Brighton. The city’s bid, with its focus on Suffolk Downs, gave these other locations just a passing reference.

While Baker’s submission reached to every corner of the state, it emphasized universities and transit connections that are primarily in Eastern Massachusetts.

“The package still favors the Boston area,” said Brendan Carroll, director of intelligence at Perry Brokerage Associates. “A lot of the things that are referred to in the package are really natural assets of the Boston area, in particular the density of the universities and the rail connectivity.”


Steve Purpura, executive managing partner at real estate firm Transwestern Consulting Group, said the most viable proposal from Massachusetts shouldn’t rely on Suffolk Downs or Somerville alone. The best bid, he said, has to be as close to downtown Boston as possible, to draw commuters from all around the region.

Amazon, after all, has said it would like to hire as many as 50,000 workers at its HQ2 over 15 years.

“They’re going to need to put themselves in the best possible position to get access to as much labor as possible,” Purpura said. “If you’re going to get that many people, you need to be centrally located within the city to get access to the south, the north, and the west.”

Curtatone is embracing a regional strategy, roping in Cambridge and Boston properties for his bid. Boston officials, meanwhile, are working with Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, as the 161-acre Suffolk Downs site straddles the border of those two cities.

Curtatone said he talked with Walsh about his plans but ended up submitting a separate proposal without Boston’s involvement.

“They found this intriguing,” Curtatone said. “We didn’t want to slow their bids down. I think it’s important we have more options.”

Curtatone outlines two scenarios, each of which would meet the massive 8 million square feet of development space Amazon requested in its proposal. One is arranged along the Orange Line and includes Assembly Square in Somerville, the North Point area on the Somerville/Cambridge line, and the North Station office project under construction in Boston. Somerville said additional properties in Sullivan Square could augment that proposal.


A second scenario follows the extension of the Green Line, which is expected to be completed by 2022, including again the North Station and North Point developments, but veering off to encompass the nearly 5 million square feet of potential development in Union Square and the nearby Boynton Yards in Somerville.

Curtatone said he views his bid as a way to bring several neighboring cities together for an important cause.

“We have an opportunity to break out of our parochial and provincial roles or mindsets,” Curtatone said. “Although we haven’t had a great history, this is a big chance to reset that dialogue.”

Boston officials said they picked Suffolk Downs over Curtatone’s proposal and others because the former race track seemed to best align with the specific criteria outlined by Amazon.

“They asked for 8 million square feet on 100 acres,” said developer Tom O’Brien, who leads the group that bought Suffolk Downs in May. “When they said, ‘Be creative,’ I think they meant within that context. If you try to cobble together 8 million square feet across the city, maybe you get sites spread across five or six MBTA stops.”

In Greater Boston’s core, standalone sites of that size are hard to find, especially ones ready to build. Even the redevelopment of the old North Point rail yard, newly renamed as Cambridge Crossing, has only about 2 million square feet of office space permitted across 42 acres, with about the same amount devoted to housing.


“Boston might not have had a competitive proposal had Suffolk Downs not been ready to go,” O’Brien said.

The Baker administration team, led by economic development secretary Jay Ash, tried to leave the door as wide open as possible. Ash said state officials didn’t want to try to prejudge what Amazon might want in a site, or preclude a particular community.

He likened the process to the state’s effort to lure General Electric to move its headquarters here last year. At first, at least 15 properties were suggested to GE, in and around eastern Massachusetts.

“If I told you at the beginning of the GE process that they were going to select two old candy factories, you would have laughed at me,” Ash said. “By having an open dialogue of all the possibilities, sometimes that can develop into something that none of the parties envisioned.”

State officials hope Massachusetts will get into a second round of finalists, and they’ve already begun the groundwork for that eventuality. It’s possible the administration may need to turn to the Legislature at some point for a package that could include funding for transportation or tax incentives to attract Amazon.

But even with the Legislature’s help, Ash doesn’t expect to outgun rival states with giveaways alone.


“We always tell companies, if you’re looking for the biggest incentive package, you’re in the wrong place,” Ash said. “We hope to be competitive with incentives and really win the day with our history of innovation and the tremendous talent we have.”

Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.