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Paul McMorrow

Everett development plan a model for other cities

Lower Broadway in Everett is a place in name only. It pops up on maps, sandwiched between Charlestown and Everett proper, but those 100-odd acres lying between the Mystic River, Route 16, a set of railroad tracks, and Everett’s tank farms don’t make up a place, so much as they occupy the space between Charlestown and Everett’s main drag. Lower Broadway is full of vacant parcels, industrial buildings, and low-impact commercial strip development. It lacks a center of gravity of its own; instead, it’s a no-man’s land you pass through on the way to somewhere else.

Areas like Lower Broadway are shaped by their industrial history, but they’re only held in place by the absence of a plan for creating something else. They’re mostly limited by a lack of ambition and imagination. So the city of Everett is launching a plan for rebuilding this stretch of Broadway, giving it a new sense of place, and bringing it down to a human scale. The city is working proactively to guide developers and to seed market demand. And in the process, it’s providing a model for other cities grappling with disused and under-utilized commercial corridors.

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Large portions of Everett’s southern edge remain active industrial zones, but the stretch along Lower Broadway is dominated by vacant post-industrial land and suburban-style strip construction. At the same time, the district sits in a location where it could, with the right push, feed off tremendous economic activity nearby. It’s directly across the Mystic River from Assembly Square in Somerville, and minutes from Station Landing in Medford and Sullivan Square in Charlestown. “It’s so close to the river and close to Boston, you look at it and ask, how has it not been developed yet?” says James Errickson, Everett’s planning director.

Upriver developments at Station Landing and Assembly Square demonstrate the type of transformation that Everett is chasing. At Station Landing, developers used Orange Line access to turn a low-intensity strip at Wellington Circle into a dense, mixed-use community.

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Assembly Square’s redevelopers are transforming a wasteland that used to house a Ford plant into a neighborhood with apartments, shops, and a new Orange Line stop. In both cases, cities turned fallow land into catalysts for radical change. They made well-located urban land meet its potential.

Everett’s planners will be envisioning ways to urbanize a strip that was built to a suburban scale. “We see it as a gateway into Everett, coming across the bridge from Boston, and less of a car-driven pass-through,” says Fred Merrill, a planner at Sasaki, the firm directing the Lower Broadway study. They’ll be working to create connections, on foot and by bike, between Lower Broadway and the clusters of activity in Everett, Somerville, Medford, and Boston. “It’s so close to so many places,” Merrill says, “but you have to get in a car to get anywhere.”

The opportunity to remake this stretch of Everett has its roots in scandal surrounding the Big Dig. The biggest development play along Lower Broadway is a 35-acre vacant parcel along the Mystic, just over the bridge from Sullivan Square. Modern Continental once used the site as a staging ground for its Big Dig construction crews. At various times, Modern made bids to turn the riverfront site into a new Fenway Park, into a big box retail complex, and into a condominium and marina development. Modern’s 2008 bankruptcy forced the liquidation of its real estate holdings, stalling the on-and-off redevelopment efforts at the Everett parcel, which remains one of the largest blocks of undeveloped land around Boston. The city of Everett now hopes that, by tying planning on the Modern site to a coherent vision for the rest of Lower Broadway, it can elevate the entire neighborhood.

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Lower Broadway has already seen some development pressure. The conversion of the former Charleston Chew candy factory into loft condominiums proved the area could attract private investment. The Sasaki planning process, which launches with a citywide forum on June 26, aims to put Everett in a place where it’s asking developers to build projects that reinforce each other and fulfill a coherent vision of the city’s own future, instead of having the city react to individual developers’ proposals. In this context, projects like the Charleston Lofts are first steps, not ends in themselves. “If you walk out the door there,” Merrill asks, “where would you walk to?”


Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.