Somerville has no right being as hot as it is right now. The city is tiny, boasting less than one-tenth the land area of Boston. And what little land Somerville does have looks like much of Boston. It’s a city of neighborhood squares and triple-deckers, of narrow streets, and of industrial lots decades past their prime. That’s a common inheritance in and around Boston, but Somerville has parlayed it into two separate billion-dollar real-estate-development initiatives, one in Assembly Square, one in Union Square.
So the four-square-mile city is punching far above its weight right now. That’s because Somerville knows that standing still isn’t an option. The city realizes change is coming, one way or another, so civic leaders have rolled up their sleeves to make that change work for Somerville.
The redevelopment of Assembly Square has already gotten its fair share of attention. But consider what’s happening in Union Square. Last week, the city tapped a team led by the Chicago firm Magellan Development Group to lead an ambitious rebuilding there. Magellan, which emerged from a field of 10 development teams, will take charge of a 12-acre urban-renewal district Somerville created in Union Square last year. The urban-renewal effort aims to construct 2.3 million square feet worth of new buildings. It’s Somerville’s initial effort to capitalize on Green Line streetcar service, which will arrive in Union Square in three years.
Magellan’s urban-renewal district is currently a mixed bag of publicly and privately owned parcels with low-slung industrial properties and strips of single-story retail buildings. All of it is outdated; it represents the best of what Union Square could hope for in, say, the 1970s. The area has stayed that way because Somerville lacked a way to transform it into something else.
But the arrival of Green Line trolleys, which will put Union Square a mere 10-minute ride from downtown Boston, completely changes the neighborhood’s potential. Somerville has spent years preparing to remake the gritty, weed-strewn corners around the future Green Line hub. The city up-zoned the blocks around the Green Line. It asked would-be developers of its urban renewal zone to buy into a robust community vision for the neighborhood — one that places a heavy emphasis on local businesses and mixed-income housing.
Indeed, at heart, Somerville’s Union Square redevelopment is an anti-gentrification campaign. The Green Line will drive up housing prices and commercial property values. The only way to moderate spiking prices is to build more, and to tap this new development to help subsidize rents for the working families and small businesses most threatened by gentrification. Somerville told developers last year it was launching a values-based, community-oriented redevelopment of Union Square. And developers still clawed at each other to get a piece of it.
The recipe in Union Square is simple: Use transit to transform run-down properties that don’t belong in a thriving city. Boston is full of places that could do the same. Cleary and Logan Square along the Fairmount Line in Hyde Park, Sullivan Square in Charlestown, and Ashmont in Dorchester should all be booming like Union Square. They’re not, because Boston still hasn’t figured out how to drive development forward rather than react to it.
Boston likes to think it has the right recipe for development. The city’s zoning is so restrictive that no developer can do anything of consequence without coming to City Hall first, hat in hand. In theory, that gives City Hall leverage to reward cooperative developers, punish wayward souls, and extract goodies for neighborhood residents.
In practice, though, Boston’s reactive development apparatus means neighborhoods develop piecemeal, with the city unable to drive real change, even in areas that are primed for it. The Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation has been working since 2011 to build a couple dozen affordable apartments on top of Fairmount Station in Hyde Park. The rail stop is peppered with the same kind of properties whose redevelopment is powering Union Square’s billion-dollar initiative. The CDC’s housing project should be a no-brainer, but the wheels are spinning endlessly because Boston hasn’t the vision or political muscle to make things happen in the streets around the Fairmount stop.
And until the city does, money and jobs will keep flowing a few miles north, into Somerville.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.