Two Squares. One Ward.

 

Located down the street northbound from the proposed Lowell Street Green Line station, Magoun Square has struggled to keep tenants in its buildings over the past decade. During daytime hours, foot traffic is usually limited to the occasional dog and its walker. Business owners wonder what it will take to bring commerce to their neighborhood.

Meanwhile, storefronts on the sleepy Somerville-side of Porter Square are less utilized than their stones-throw location from the Red Line MBTA stop would suggest. Not that the neighborhood’s priority has been to take advantage of the real estate. Many families on Elm Street can trace their ties back 50 years or more. Some say the Curtatone Administration is putting their community at risk by pushing zoning changes that should be made elsewhere.

The answer to Magoun’s problems, residents are told, is the transit oriented development that could come with the Green Line. Meanwhile, Porter Square residents are fighting to preserve their neighborhood in the face of transit oriented development. That both scenarios are playing out barely a mile apart, within the same ward, is testament to how diverse the experiences in even a four-square-mile city can be, and the challenges the city faces in working toward unified progress.

Magoun to a T

Magoun Square business owners and residents gathered at a March 15 meeting hosted by Ward 5 Alderman Sean O’Donovan. Held just a month after two Magoun Square mainstays – Li’l Vinny’s and Basil Tree Gorumet – had closed and moved respectively, the meeting introduced the square to a prospective new business. Rahul Kotach, the owner of K-2 Market (516 Medford St.), wanted to open a high-end beer and wine shop to go in Basil Tree’s newly empty storefront. Since the start of the recession, businesses have come and gone a few cycles over, never fully filling the square and leaving Magoun economically trailing nearby Ball Square and East Somerville. Magoun, residents are told, will catch up on the back of the Green Line station, already twice-delayed in its opening and now slated for 2018 at the earliest; and Maxwell’s Green, a 199-unit Lowell Street condo development adjacent the proposed station, set to open in 2013. Maxwell’s Green is being built, in part, because of its proximity to the station.

Other Green Line spots like Union and Gilman squares and Washington Street are already the subject of the City’s revitalization efforts. College Avenue has a built-in clientele from Tufts. And Ball Square has found its niche without the Green Line. The lines out of Sound Bites and Ball Square Cafe already extend down Broadway on weekend mornings; they simply figure to wrap around the corner when Boston gets easier T access.

Magoun has struggled to grow on its own. And aside from a 2010 federal stimulus-funded construction effort that made the square more pedestrian-friendly and a 2011 study citing barriers to the square’s development,some advocates say it has yet to garner much City attention.

“There’s a lot of comprehensive planning going on in Somerville,” said O’Donovan. “I’m afraid Magoun’s not going to benefit.”

This leaves the square at the whims of the Green Line’s progress, which many of its actors say is a dangerous game for multiple reasons.

First, both the Lowell Street station and Maxwell’s Green are located halfway between Magoun and Highland Avenue. Neither pour directly out into the square, about 150 yards away. The Highland-side of Spring Hill figures to benefit from their arrival as much as Magoun does. Those getting off the train or leaving their condo will need a reason to turn left towards Magoun once unboarding.

“I’d rather see us develop the square in time for the Green Line,” said Courtney O’Keefe, who runs neighborhood blog Ward 5 Online.

Daniel Maher, owner of Daniel Maher Stained Glass (500 Medford St.) takes that perspective a step further. “Potentially, I think the Green Line could hurt,” he said. “Why would people want to live near it? So they could go into Boston.” Magoun is home to 50 daytime employees according to a City study, meaning nearly all of the area’s estimated 4,300 residents leave Magoun every day. The Green Line, he said, may just make it easier for people to escape. And all of this is moot if the Green Line never comes. Magoun-area residents are careful about getting their hopes up. “Quite frankly, I doubt anything the governor or the [state’s] Department of Transportation are saying,” said Magoun Square Neighborhood Association head Joe Lynch.

O’Donovan, who defeated Lynch in the ward’s 2007 alderman race, agreed. Though federal and state funds are supposed to cover the extension’s costs, he doesn’t see the T’s budget crisis lending itself to optimism about the project. “I want the Green Line,” he said. “But I don’t see where the $900 million [in construction costs] is coming from.”

Magoun, O’Donovan said, will have to figure itself out independent of the Green Line. Those around the square attribute its empty storefronts to two primary problems: parking restrictions – Maher points out that it costs as much to park in Magoun for an hour as it does Harvard Square, and is more expensive than better developed free parking neighborhoods just north in Medford – and the lack of a unified business voice in the neighborhood, which a 2011 City report said prevents the square from developing a cohesive vision and strategy.

But that same report, while sympathetic to the effects the recession had on the square, opens by saying the Green Line and Maxwell’s Green put it in position for economic renewal, prompting O’Donovan to say that he thinks City Hall is depending too heavily on the Green Line in its Magoun Square plan.

”To an extent, they should,” he said. “But what if the Green Line doesn’t come? We need to work on Magoun Square now.”

At the March 15 meeting, those in attendance, perhaps in agreement with Kotach’s observation that “beer is such a lovely thing,” were warm to the high-end beer and wine shop. And when Kotach said he also planned to buy the Basil Tree building, they completely embraced it.

Kotach said he sees Magoun as a spot to buy property now because of the promise the Green Line and Maxwell’s Green represent for its future. “You have the condos opening soon and the T station in the future,” he said. “Now is the time to invest. You make money in the future.”

His investment has the neighborhood’s approval. ”The fact that you’re purchasing the building is a game-changer,” O’Keefe said at the meeting, voicing her support for the proposal. Kotach’s economic theory may need some adjusting. It may not be the forthcoming Lowell Street station that makes the real estate worth owning. Rather, it may be that his purchase serves as a building block in making the station worth building from Magoun’s perspective.

“Nightmare on Elm Street”

The push and pull between residents and officials in any arena is nothing new to local government. But while Magoun waits for results from preliminary planning, some residents in the Porter Square area would rather the Curtatone Administration put its energy elsewhere.

The Board of Aldermen is considering a Porter rezoning plan put forward by the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development after nearly three years of “visioning” meetings with a stated goal of increasing the area’s commercial tax capacity. A group of around 40 neighbors says what emerged from those sessions is putting their way of life at risk.

At first glance, Somerville’s side of Porter Square appears to be ripe for more development given its proximity to the bustling T station and upscale businesses just over the city line in Cambridge. But Somerville’s end has largely remained residential, home to both newcomers and families who have lived on the same block for generations.

”The [visioning] meetings began with, ‘What kind of landscaping do you want on White Street?’” neighbor Richard Vallone said. “And all of a sudden they started talking about zoning.”

City planners want to rewrite the zoning regulations in the area around the Porter Square T stop to allow for development over the tracks on the Somerville side. A hotel is one idea that’s been tossed around, although no developer has announced any interest publicly. The plan also calls for sections of residential-zoned housing around Wilson Square and Elm Street to allow more commercial usage. The changes to the residential zoning, the proposal notes, “will dictate which areas of the neighborhood are conserved, which are enhanced, and which are transformed to support neighborhood scale mixed use, transit oriented development.”

The neighbors fighting the rezoning say that wording masks what would be a fundamental change forced onto the neighborhood by planners. A neighborhood that has stood for decades would, at least on paper, become something else. Resident Clara Serpa said there is little doubt families that have lived there for generations would eventually be forced out as developers move in.

“We don’t aspire to be a gateway to Cambridge,” Serpa said. “We like our neighborhood.”

A week before a March Board of Aldermen Land Use Committee meeting on the plan, five of the neighbors leading the protest talked strategy. They were dismayed by the Planning Board’s vote to recommend the plan, even after being presented with an alternative plan that did not include their neighborhood in the rezoning.

These opponents of the rezoning are determined to convince the aldermen to vote against it.

At the March committee meeting, Planning Director George Proakis laid out the City’s plan in front of several members of the group, with Proakis noting that “we wouldn’t jump to do it if we didn’t think there was some semblance of support.”

Of the dozen neighbors that spoke, two said they were in favor of somehow revitalizing the area in general. But the common theme throughout the rest of the testimony was that the City was putting residents’ concerns behind development. The phrase “Nightmare on Elm Street” was used more than once.

The aldermen joined the chorus of skeptical neighbors in expressing concern, ultimately altering the proposal to pull back the new commercial zoning from the Elm Street line. “It’s not like developers are beating down the door to put in commercial development,” Alderman-at-Large Bill White told Proakis.

(At an April 26 Board of Aldermen meeting, after the print version of this article was published, the board approved only three out of six sections of the proposed rezoning — leaving the focus mostly on development over the train tracks.)

Refining the Process

While the Porter rezoning has been dialed back in scope, its ultimate fate remains to be seen. Some neighbors wonder if at the heart of the proposed development the City is bowing to pressure from the T despite – or perhaps because of – delays in Green Line Extension. Speaking from Magoun, Lynch sees that perspective.

“[The mayor] is in a difficult position in how he has to horse trade with the state,” Lynch said. “There’s important stuff to him like the Green Line, and important stuff to the state like those air rights.”

To some Porter residents, that wouldn’t be reason enough. In a letter to the City, Vallone questioned why the City has been so bullish on rezoning Porter while ignoring other areas.

“Why is [Porter Square] being ruined by zoning changes,” Vallone wrote, “when there are multiple other prospects in the city…that our mayor and the OSCPD are not holding to the same proposals?”

O’Donovan said he has gotten the impression that the T asked for the 70-foot development zoning around the commuter rail tracks. He said he hasn’t decided how he would vote for that development but does think the T, as property owners in the area, has a say.

O’Donovan added that the T, on the promise of the Green Line, may have some influence in how the city plans.

“To a certain degree, yes, and to a certain degree, no,” he said. While developing Porter near the Cambridge line in a T-friendly manner may be appropriate, O’Donovan said the Board of Aldermen would be less receptive to similar transit oriented development in more residential areas.

Proakis, the city planner, maintains the MBTA is working in good faith on the Green Line and is holding up its end on the planning side despite repeated delays in expected completion dates. And, he adds, the MBTA has not pressured City Hall to rezone Porter Square.

“They’re not in the business of telling local government how to develop real estate that they don’t own,” Proakis said.

Responding to the argument that OSPCD should be focusing on other areas of the city with more pressing needs, like Magoun, Proakis said the department has been mindful of appearing to focus too much on one area.

“Magoun Square deserves the same sort of attention as Porter,” he said.

 

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