Somerville is changing. The T is coming, and with it a slew of economic and housing developments. Some are calling Somerville, with its recent rise in rents and uptick in student residents, the next Cambridge. There’s no way to stop it, but there may be a way to guide it, and that’s what Brad Rawson intends to do.
Rawson, a senior planner at the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development, is like the Leslie Knope of Somerville. Armed with floor-to-ceiling foam board panels covered in drawings and a stack of books that contained plans for Somerville, he talked for over an hour about SomerVision – and only scratched the surface.
In 2008, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone asked Rawson’s office to develop a comprehensive plan for the city. The result, a few years later, was SomerVision and its parallel public meeting process, Somerville by Design. One of the major missions of the plan was to invite the public to be involved in the process, and at the right time, according to Rawson.
“The mayor’s like, ‘The only way this thing is going to work is if our residents and stakeholders are willing to do the work themselves,’” said Rawson. SomerVision’s strategy is to hold public meetings and gather input before a plan is drawn, rather than using resources to create a plan that is only offered to the public once it is near completion. Gathering input along the way allows the city to make plans that are more attuned to the values and needs of the city, Rawson said.
“Successful communities are ones that plan for their futures rather than ones that just sit back and let change occur without trying to guide that change,” said Rawson. He cites Kendall Square in Cambridge as one such area that could have benefited from the Somerville by Design approach of “Outreach, Dialogue, Decide, Implement.” One stroll through the neighborhood is enough to see the gaps in development. On one hand, there’s a lot of exciting economic development, especially in the technology sector. High-rise office buildings and luxury condominiums sit right beside low-income residences that see little – if any – of the billions of dollars in development rising up around them.
Davis Square, parts of East Somerville and areas that will be affected by the impending Green Line expansion are well on their way to the decision and implementation portions of the planning process. The latest neighborhood to be addressed by Somerville by Design is Winter Hill, where they are looking to address areas hard hit by the recession.
There are three areas Somerville by Design has identified with the help from the public: Magoun Square, Broadway Corridor, and Temple Square. These are the specific locales where Somerville by Design will focus its energies. The main problems that they’ve identified are a lack of accessibility for pedestrians and inconvenient public transportation. Safety is also an issue, with residents reporting fearful and sometime injurious treks along the Broadway Corridor, which they say is not well lit and the site of high speed traffic. They also hope to increase cycling accessibility with bike lanes and new Hubway stations. Increased public spaces and more signage with visitor-friendly information is also planned to emphasize the neighborhood as a destination.
One of the specific points Somerville by Design’s plan hopes to address is the abandoned Star Market building in Temple Square. In 2007, the building became vacant, creating not only a potential for urban blight but also eliminating one of very few grocery options available to residents in the area. Solutions would include, in the short term, converting the building into a retail location, with storefront as well as a market. In the long term, options include demolishing the building and replacing it with a mixed-use retail and residential building more tailored to the space.
Plans like the one for Winter Hill are the result of years of planning and process, some of which has not yet ended. Somerville by Design will take an additional round of public input in mid-January. You can read about the ongoing process and find out information about public meetings at somervillebydesign.com.