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SomerVision: What makes a city hip?

More than 70 guests packed BSA Space on January 16 for the BSA Urban Design Committee’s kick-off lecture for 2014. The draw? SomerVision, Somerville’s 20-year plan for evolution into a model for urban planning, smart growth, open space, public transit, sustainability, diversity, artistry, and community.

Buoyed by Somerville’s 2009 All-America City Award from the National Civic League and “Best-Run City in Massachusetts” accolade from The Boston Globe, Mayor Joseph Curtatone pitched his pipe dream as the full realization of those recognitions for his 4.1-square-mile, 78,000-strong city.

“It’s where cultures intersect and collide with one another, where you can enable collaborative creativity,” he said. 

The 11-year mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development (OSPCD) developed SomerVision from a three-year discussion process involving residents, businesses, nonprofits, and officials. “The community spoke loudly: This is who we are, no matter what we build,” said Curtatone. “And these values will guide our planning.”

A key plan is Assembly Square’s transformation into a vibrant live/work/shop village, served by an Orange Line MBTA station and a Mystic River–front park. Anchoring this ongoing development is Elkus Manfredi Architects’ Assembly Row of residential units, retail outlets, restaurants, offices, hotel rooms, and Partners HealthCare facilities.

"It's where cultures intersect and collide with one another, where you can enable collaborative creativity."

“Assembly Square will recapture the waterfront we never thought we had,” said Curtatone. “It’ll have a 24-hour sense of place.”

Assembly is one of six squares Curtatone would like to see flourish. He sees that promise already in Union Square, a mecca for international restaurants, ethnic markets, artists’ enclaves, and green-tech start-ups. To manifest Union’s potential as a vibrant urban core, he seeks public-private partnerships for build-outs on abutting brownfields and parking lots, where farmers markets, flower stands, and food trucks have planted seeds of future growth for decades. 

For Gilman Square, Curtatone proposed earmarking vacant and automotive lots for residential/retail construction and reworking the street grid for more open space. A successful model for this is Edward Leathers Memorial Park, created on the Kemp Nut Factory site from extensive community input. It won a 2012 Boston Society of Landscape Architects Merit Award. 

The OSPCD’s Somerville by Design (SBD) task force envisions Gilman with a tree-framed monument park as a symbol of civic pride and a magnet for social interaction. SBD proposed similar schemes for Magoun Square and Ball Square. These are conjunctive with the Green Line extension designed to interlink the squares and infill them with transit-oriented communities along the lines of ICON architecture’s Maxwell’s Green.

Bike paths were other green threads of urban linkage Curtatone stressed to downplay the divisive effect of auto-traffic barriers such as McGrath/O’Brien Highway and the I-93 viaduct. He exemplified Beacon Street’s bike lane along the Cambridge-Somerville border as the people-oriented interurban unifier a bike route can be. 

The LivableStreets Alliance proposes a bike/pedestrian bridge from the Inner Belt/Brickbottom district to the town-line NorthPoint to replace McGrath’s McCarthy Overpass. Curtatone hopes this bridge will spawn the expansion of those communities without displacing Brickbottom’s long-standing artists’ association.

The presentation was followed by a lively conversation with the audience. Issues raised included building height and density, particularly the “vertical form” much new construction is taking, threatening Somerville’s low-rise character. 

“As part of our RFP [request for proposal] for Union Square, people immediately react to some of the massing in the renderings of what could happen,” said Curtatone. “We are a city that embraces development done the right way, but we’re very sensitive to certain heights and how that height and density transitions into our neighborhood.”

Also discussed were housing price increases and gentrification resulting from Somerville’s building and transit development, counteracting its history as a haven for immigrants, artists, students, and lower-income families. 

“If people desire to move there, family housing stock is critical,” said Curtatone. SomerVision calls for 20 percent minimum affordability in all new housing to ensure its vision for Somerville as “an exceptional place to live, work, play, and raise a family.”

The BSA Urban Design Committee’s next lecture, on March 6, features professor Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places research group at MIT Media Lab. He will discuss the exciting research his group is conducting at the lab.

The committee thanks outgoing chairs David Gamble AIA and Shauna Gillies-Smith for providing a strong foundation for the lecture series over the past three years. Meera Deean (Utile), Patrick Tedesco AIA (NBBJ), and Paul Lukez FAIA (Paul Lukez Architecture) are the new chairs. 

Images courtesy of the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development of the City of Somerville


Related:
Somerville — the little city that could
Boston Globe Opinion
by Renée Loth