Davis Neighborhood Plan Nears Finalization Amid Concern from Square Businesses

Davis Square Neighborhood PlanPhoto courtesy of Davis Square Neighborhood Plan Draft.

What’s in the Plan Draft?

The Davis Square Neighborhood Plan draft maps out the next 20 to 30 years for the area, detailing how roads and building rules will be changed and reimagining public spaces.

The city has designated Davis as an area to enhance, rather than a space to conserve or transform. This middle ground means that Davis won’t be turned into an “urban center” like what Assembly Square is becoming. Instead, the neighborhood plan aims to help Davis become a fully realized “local center.”

To do this, the drafted plan is broken into three categories: life, spaces, and buildings.

Enhance Public Life

  Square Off the Intersection — The draft erases Davis’s iconic yet notoriously convoluted intersection and replaces it with a square one, where Holland Avenue leads straight into Highland Avenue and College Avenue flows into Elm Street. All four roads would have two-way traffic.

  Increase Public Areas — A block of Dover Street would be shut down as part of the new intersection, and public plazas would be built on Dover Street and in the space between Highland Avenue and Elm Street. The draft also prioritizes getting food trucks into the square, and suggests making the food truck permitting process simpler.

  Get More Art into the Square — The plan suggests several options for creating more public art in the neighborhood, from Capital Improvement Budget funding to a city-wide mural program.

Improve Spaces Where People Travel and Gather

  Revamp the Day Street Parking Lot — The plan draft prioritizes supporting the Davis Square Market, whether by giving it a power supply or even constructing a permanent building to house it.

  Consider Letting Private Lots Operate Fee-based Parking — This move would allow the city to repurpose its Grove Street lot into public space.

  Change Summer Street Lot into a Plaza

  Support Pedestrians and Cyclists — Plans include adjusting intersection signal timing, adding bike parking, and repaving sidewalks.

Carve Out Building Space

  Raise the Roofs — Currently most buildings in Davis cannot be more than four stories high. The draft of the neighborhood plan outlines mid-rise buildings at five and six stories in specific areas of the square. Five- and six-story buildings would have to have an “upper story step-back” after the fourth floor.

What Could the Plan Mean for Small Businesses?

To Magpie and Magpie Kids owner David Sakowski, allowing taller buildings in the square seems like the beginning of the end for small businesses like his.

The issue, as he sees it, is that property owners will sell their shorter buildings at high sums to developers who anticipate a profit in constructing new buildings at higher heights. The displacement, whether temporary or permanent, poses a real threat to businesses, he worries.

Sakowski says he no longer has a long-term lease at either of his stores’ locations, which gives landlords more flexibility to sell. The recent buyer of the Magpie Kids building, which is near Porter Square, has said he plans to tear down the building, according to Sakowski.

While the Magpie Kids store lies outside of the Davis Square plan, and thereby suggests these dynamics are already at play in the city, Sakowski fears the building heights allowed by the neighborhood plan will usher the pattern into Davis.

“What happened here is what’s going to start happening in Davis Square,” Sakowski said during an interview in Magpie Kids. “Landlords are going to be like, ‘Woah, I’ve got this old, rundown building that I’m charging these rents for, someone’s going to give me $3 million for it? Sure, let me sell it.’ Why would you keep it?”

Magpie, which resides near the heart of Davis Square, is currently a two-floor building. The neighborhood plan, in the current draft, would allow it to become a five-story building.

Sakowski worries about the effects of displacement, even if businesses could afford the presumably higher rents once the new buildings were ready.

“One of the big issues that I was talking with the folks from the city about and raised concern with the other business owners in Davis Square, is like, even if the guy said ‘You can come back and have the new space,’ it’s going to take a year to two years to build the building,” he says. “What do you do with your business for that time? If there’s nowhere else for you to go temporarily, you’re just out of business, basically.”

When asked about the concerns Sakowski presented, Senior Planner for the city Melissa Woods notes that such dynamics are unfolding in Somerville already.

“It’s really a private market decision,” Woods says. “The city isn’t necessarily actively involved in displacing businesses. We had a lot of hard work to do with the community about thinking long-term. Although there are beloved businesses in Davis Square … we have to think beyond the existing tenants. Our economic development division does great work collaborating with businesses that are at threat of being displaced.”

Davis Squared co-owners Melisa and Paul Christie say they have gotten a similar response from the city.

“They were like, ‘Well you know, it’s not really our fault if the landlord does this.’ And I’m like, but you’re changing the zoning, so it kind of is your fault, or your responsibility,” Melisa Christie says.

Davis Squared’s building, which is currently one story, could become six floors under the plan.

“When they put that impetus for redevelopment, I think it’s hard to believe that local, independent owners are going to be able to, one, sustain themselves while their building is being redeveloped, and then also be able to reenter on a reasonable lease,” Paul Christie says.

“I definitely feel like, if that happens, then all of us who are here now will not be here,” Melisa Christie adds.

Somerville Local First Executive Director Courtney O’Keefe points out that the plan’s efforts to bring more tenants to the square could support local businesses, particularly restaurants, that struggle during daytime hours, but remains concerned about small businesses holding onto a place in the square.

“If the only people that can fit inside there is a Starbucks, a CVS, a Target, or other corporate spaces, then it looks like Harvard Square,” O’Keefe says. “And we don’t want Davis Square to look like Harvard Square.”

In order to help with part of the equation, Sakowski suggests the city create a Bow Market-style building where displaced businesses that hope to remain in the square could set up shop while their buildings are under construction. Woods was responsive when she heard the idea, calling it “provoking.”

Paul Christie also has ideas for ways the city could help mitigate damage to small businesses as parts of Davis get rebuilt, including by designating affordable retail rental spaces through tax breaks for building owners.

Editor’s note: The print version of this piece mistakenly states in the headline that the plan has been finalized. The plan has not yet been finalized. Scout regrets this error.

This story originally appeared in the Celebrating the Season issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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