SOMERVILLE — Thirty-five years ago, the Red Line came to Davis Square, and before long, this place didn’t really feel like “Slummerville” anymore.
Artists and grad students moved in, seeking cheap rents. Shot-and-a-beer bars gave way to hip, homey restaurants like Redbones and Diesel Cafe. Before long, some people took to calling Davis the “Paris of the ’90s,” their tongues only partly in cheek.
And that’s kind of how it’s been ever since.
The square still buzzes with 20something energy. Weekends feature a parade of street fairs. You can smell the barbecue at Redbones on a crisp afternoon, catch a midnight screening at the Somerville Theatre, or watch your toddlers break dance during the kids’ show at The Burren, the Irish pub that doubles as Davis Square’s living room.
Now, though, another wave of change is coming.
After years of discussions, the city is nearly done crafting a plan that would swap some of those modest storefronts for larger office and apartment buildings. Deep-pocketed developers are circling, raising rents and starting to pitch plans of their own. It’s forcing a conversation about how Davis might grow without losing what makes it unique — how to balance new development with its old soul.
“Everyone loves Davis Square for its character,” said David Sakowski, owner of Magpie, a gift store on Highland Avenue. “If you just tear it all up and put in brand new shiny buildings that are six stories tall, that’s going to change.”
The beginnings of this “new” Davis Square date to 2013, when Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone launched a plan to revitalize the neighborhood. He eventually hired Jan Gehl — a Danish architect credited with helping to turn Copenhagen into the “world’s most livable city” — to imagine new plazas and public space in Davis. Gehl’s ideas figure prominently in the 111-page plan that will go to the Planning Board by year’s end. It calls for more green space and reorients traffic, putting more emphasis on pleasing pedestrians than drivers.
“This plan does not propose to transform Davis Square,” Gehl wrote. “The primary intent is to enhance the unique qualities and character that make Davis Square special.”
But it also calls for some significant changes.
Planners studied 15 buildings in the core of the neighborhood, mostly low-slung older storefronts, and envisioned making them four to six stories each. That would add about 1.6 million square feet of new office space and housing in a city that needs both. It’s part of a broader push by Curtatone to bring more jobs, and tax revenue, to Somerville.
The plan makes some constructive suggestions about improving public spaces, said Justin Hollander, a professor of urban planning at nearby Tufts University, but he doesn’t believe that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s being used as a cover for the same kind of economic development initiatives that displace local businesses and residents and make it a playground for the rich,” Hollander said. “As soon as you focus the attention of the city’s resources into enhancement or improvement and start making adjustments to zoning and inviting developers in, it’s going to happen.”
And as if on cue, it already has.
The news this summer that British student-housing developer Scape had bought a chunk of Elm Street went off like a bomb in the delicate ecosystem of Davis Square. The future of neighborhood mainstays like The Burren, Sligo Pub, and McKinnon’s Meat Market looked to be suddenly be in doubt; same with newcomers, including an outpost of When Pigs Fly bakery and Dragon Pizza, which Boston Magazine recently designated as a “best of.” In their place, many feared, would be a dorm for transient college kids.
Scape has tried to allay those fears. At a packed meeting last month, CEO Andrew Flynn said his company would build 250 regular apartments in Davis, not student housing, with 20 percent set aside as affordable units. The building would have small storefronts, at reasonable rents, like what’s there now. As for current tenants, Flynn said, The Burren would stay, and he’s talking with most of the other tenants.
“We want to preserve the retail fabric of Davis Square,” Flynn said. “We really want to bring these tenants back.”
Residents were skeptical. Half of the questions Flynn faced were about how he planned to preserve Davis while plopping a six-story building into the heart of it.
“What about Sligo?” someone yelled from the back.
“And McKinnon’s,” said another person in the audience, who preferred it to the newer, pricier BFresh Market across the street. “I can’t pay BFresh prices for meat.”
That the fate of a dive bar and an old-school meat market generated such passionate reactions reflects part of what makes Davis special, said Chris Iwerks, an architect who’s lived in the neighborhood for about 30 years. Unlike newer neighborhoods such as Boston’s Seaport District and Kendall Square in Cambridge, Davis is more diverse, both culturally and economically.
“It’s not homogenous,” Iwerks said. “Davis has places that cater to people who don’t have a lot of money. Second-hand clothes stores. The bike shop. Inexpensive restaurants.”
He worries a wave of development will blow that out, with new construction demanding rents that only a certain kind of business can sustain.
Those concerns were echoed on a recent Friday afternoon along the bar at the Sligo Pub. More than 75 years old, the slit-windowed bar predates the Red Line, its website advertising “a taste of Old Somerville.” Should it close, the Sligo will be missed, and not just by the weekend crowd.
“There really won’t be a place where I’ll feel comfortable coming in and sitting down and having a drink after work,” said June Seaver, who was nursing a mudslide. “It just won’t be the same.”
“A little change is good,” said her friend Mario Messina, “but this is overwhelming.”
That’s a lament being heard all over Greater Boston lately, as development remakes neighborhoods that have largely remained static for decades.
But even without new development, said George Proakis, Somerville’s lead planner, the mix of businesses is changing.
Condos are going up on the site of beloved music club Johnny D’s. Trendy chains like Oath Pizza and Pokeworks have moved in. Rents now rival those in swankier areas such as Boston’s South End. Some change is inevitable, Proakis said, but there’s still a chance to guide the growth of Davis without destroying it in the process.
“Neighborhoods are going to change whether we work with them or do nothing at all,” he said. “The only choice we have is whether we plan, or just let it happen.”
Read more from the On the Street: Davis Square series.
Start-ups don’t have room to grow in Davis Square. Somerville’s trying to change that. Read more here.
Davis Square is wonderfully weird. How can the city preserve its unique retail mix? Read more here.
Davis Square potential development sites
(Drag the divider on each image to compare current and proposed buildings)
246 Elm St.
A row of storefronts on Elm Street could become a four-story apartment building.
393 Highland Ave.
A one-story Rite-Aid and city parking lot today, the plan calls for a 5-story, 110,000-square-foot office building.
One College Ave.
The Middlesex Federal Savings Bank and adjacent Red Line station next door would be “difficult to develop” but could become an “iconic” building in the heart of the square with 52 units of housing or 44,000 square feet of office space.
99 Dover St.
The low-slung home of Candlewick Press is the “most ideal location” for a new office building in Davis, the plan says. It envisions a five-story, 128,000 square-foot office building there.
96-100 Dover St.
The neighborhood plan suggests a four-story building with 19 apartments or condos.