Defending Davis Square

Davis SquarePhotos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.
By Abbie Gruskin and Lilly Milman

When British developing firm Scape announced a plan last summer to construct a six-story residential building along Grove Street—from The Burren to the intersection with Elm Street—around the same time the city released a draft of a zoning overhaul, locals weren’t pleased. Davis Square was changing, and they wanted to take back control. 

Today, the future of the project is muddled. Under the final zoning ordinance passed by the city in December, the type of building proposed by Scape wouldn’t be allowed in Davis Square without a special permit; but the developer hasn’t yet said if they will change or cancel their plan. And residents and business owners of Davis Square are still worried about the future of their community. 

A Davis Square Mid-Rise

Scape, a development company known for building non-university-affiliated student housing, announced plans in June to redevelop a major plot of land within the “heart” of Davis Square, signing a nearly $10 million lease for 99 years on the properties at 231-249 Elm St., 6-8 Grove St., and 12 Grove St. The property in question currently houses nine active retail tenants and one vacant space. Scape was planning to convert the area into a six-story, pre-furnished housing development “open to all residents,” with first-floor retail spaces.

That announcement came just two months before a new zoning plan was proposed, alongside the Davis Square Neighborhood Plan, that would allow for five- and six-story buildings in the square. Since the last zoning code was put into place 30 years ago, only four-story buildings have been legal in the square.

Scape representatives declined an interview request, offering instead a brief statement from Scape North America CEO Andrew Flynn who claimed that the company is “fully committed to a transparent process that engages all stakeholders.” However, in previous public statements they had repeatedly stated that The Burren, a popular Irish pub situated in a first-floor space of the existing building, would remain in business during construction and beyond. Other shops, restaurants, and bars in the building received 18-month eviction notices, according to multiple sources.

Local business owners elsewhere in the square had also expressed fears that construction would lead to a decrease in foot traffic. Paul Christie, co-owner of Davis Squared, says the plan struck a nerve with owners who feared being pushed out of their cozy first-floor storefronts. And while his local gift shop on Highland Avenue wasn’t in danger of closing because of the Scape project, Christie anticipates it’s those like himself who also live in the square that will be impacted the most. He recalls more gradual changes to the area over the years, but the Scape plan seems like a monumental and unprecedented attempt at reconfiguring the community and infrastructure of Davis Square.

“It’s one thing to see pockets of the neighborhood change over time,” says Christie, “but it’s another thing entirely to see such a huge piece of the neighborhood change all at once.”

Paul Christie of Davis Square
Paul Christie, co-owner of gift store Davis Squared and Davis Square resident.

A Community With Character

Christie moved to Davis in 1996 and bought a fixer-upper house with one of his longtime friends, and in 2005 he opened Davis Squared with his wife, Mel, whom he met while working at the now-closed restaurant Gargoyles on the Square. At the time, she was running the now-closed gift shop Pluto, which was just two doors down the same street. Aware of the pair’s plan to open a local gift shop of their own, their UPS carrier alerted them when he noticed a vacant retail space in Davis Square. 

“It was definitely kind of scary at first, doing something on your own,” Christie explains. “But we had a lot of friends in the area and we felt comfortable that we had a really good base of people that would support us starting out. I think when we opened up there was a lot more opportunity for local people to start businesses.”

Christie feels that “animosity” between “old-school Somerville” and “new-school Somerville” over the changing landscape of Davis Square began in the 1990s as a result of the Red Line station being built in the mid-1980s. Before the arrival of the T stop, Davis Square had a reputation for being “dangerous,” according to Chris Iwerks, an architect and another Davis Square resident. He added that after the construction of the new T stop, the square boasted more space for events like Art Beat and hosted more visitors from elsewhere in the city. 

Both Alan Bingham, the chair of the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission, and Iwerks noted that while Davis Square gained a kind of charm after that period of “rebirth” in the ‘90s, in that same period other popular squares like Harvard and Kendall lost it to redevelopment and ongoing construction, which has put many small, local shops out of business. 

“Davis today is like what Harvard was 25 or 30 years ago,” Bingham explains. “But Harvard has turned out to be full of banks and basically ‘formula retail stores.’ It’s sort of lost that kind of interesting funkyness that it had.”

And preserving Davis Square’s current character was firmly in the minds of residents and business owners when they packed the multipurpose room of the First Unitarian Church on Oct. 23 for a community meeting held by Scape representatives to present their plans and field questions from the locals.

Davis Square Talks Back

At the meeting, Scape’s Flynn said there would be approximately 250 units in the building, that they would likely be a mix of studios, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments, and there would be no condos. He told attendees that studios could rent for $1,300 to $1,400 per month, while two-bedroom units could cost as much as $3,000 per month to rent for a minimum of one year. Flynn also said that the building would not offer city parking passes, which attendees of the meeting speculated would likely attract students.  

The information offered at the meeting appeared to do little to ease concerns.

Councilor Lance Davis, whose ward includes Davis Square, was vocal about the city’s detachment from Scape’s plans from the beginning, even speaking out from the back of the room at the community meeting that the city would not be rezoning anything to satisfy a developer. After all, the zoning plan that Scape was using to make its renderings—version four, to be exact, which suggested the mid-rise six zoning for Davis Square—was only a draft. 

“The timing of that was really unfortunate,” Davis says, regarding the close release of the draft and Scape’s plan. “As I said at the (Oct. 23) meeting, it’s not a coincidence that those things happened together. As the Scape folks said … they were looking at the drafts and trying to plan ahead. When you do that, sometimes it doesn’t work out because things change.”

Davis Square

He also took issue with some of the “commitments” the company said they were making on the project.

“One of the things that bugged me (at the meeting) was that (Scape) said they are absolutely committed to making 20 percent affordable housing,” Davis says. “You’re not committed to that, you’re required by law to do that. That’s a threshold requirement. They also said, ‘We are committed to the accessibility requirements.’ That’s not a commitment you’re making. That’s the law.”

Iwerks attended the meeting, as well, and feels that Scape offered no definitive response when asked about its backup plan should draft zoning ordinance they had based their plans on fell through. 

That draft, itself, had worried some residents like Iwerks.

Mid-Rise Buildings in Davis?

“That was alarming when we saw that,” Iwerks explains of the proposed zoning changes that would have allowed for six-story buildings in the square. “There had been nothing in any of the neighborhood planning sessions that would justify it. There were some things leading sort of in that direction… but they didn’t have a real credible methodology to go between speculations and what I would call law.”

Christie also feels that six-story buildings are simply too tall for the square, and that the issue of maintaining the current feel of Davis comes down to regulating the zoning. 

Locals have also expressed concerns about the construction necessary for Scape’s plan to redevelop the building on Grove Street. Bingham, the chair of the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission, adds that the building Scape has acquired is more than 50 years old and thus would need to have changes approved by the Historic Preservation Commission. 

Iwerks also compared the “upscale urban hip” style depicted in Scape’s renderings to an “invasive species,” claiming that while popular in Boston, buildings in that style wouldn’t fit in with the current feel of Davis Square. 

Christie fears that construction would make it more difficult for tourists and locals from other nearby squares to get into Davis, or that it might deter them all together. He estimated that a fifth of the square would be blocked by traffic as a result of ongoing construction. He thinks that Scape did little during their presentation to the community to address the true impact of their project on the surrounding streets. 

“They have their plan, and it’s a plan for profit,” Christie says. “With all that construction, I think you’ll have a lot of people that are just going to avoid the square all together.”

But the opposition to Scape’s plan is not unanimous. Tommy McCarthy, the owner of The Burren, notes that he’s seen this kind of redevelopment all over the world while travelling with his band. He’s been impressed by the quick completion of other Scape projects in Galway, Ireland, and believes that Scape has been “diplomatic” thus far regarding its plans for Davis Square and its relationships with the existing businesses.

“I suppose if Scape weren’t doing it, someone else would come along and do it,” McCarthy says.

Flynn reached out to The Burren last March during the beginning stages of the project, according to McCarthy. He said that Flynn was familiar with The Burren and knew that the popular pub had to stay. McCarthy also adds that The Burren has a long lease for its space in the building that prevents Scape from removing the pub from the building. 

Christie is unimpressed by Scape’s promise to let The Burren stay—he thinks the gesture of saving one business out of many is more of a show than a solution. Scape offered that other businesses in the building could return after construction is completed, according to Christie, but he suspected that for many, eviction would mean going out of business. 

“Their proposal to let The Burren stay in there is meant to diffuse a lot of the resentment from all of the other displaced businesses,” Christie says. “But that would be similar to someone redeveloping an apartment building and picking one family and saying, ‘Well, we’re going to save this one family, even though we’re going to displace all of the other families.’”

Davis Square

The Final Zoning Ordinance

In a public hearing held at City Hall on Dec. 10, the councilmembers fielded final comments from the community regarding changes to the zoning plan. Draft five, which ultimately passed in mid-December, had a few notable edits, including in Davis Square. The lot that Scape purchased would be zoned under the commercial core 4 category, which prohibits any sort of residential building, and requires special permission for buildings taller than four stories. 

“The point of zoning should be that we put our community values first and plan from that perspective, and go backwards from there to decide what we allow and how we allow it,” Davis says.

When asked about Scape’s future plans regarding their lot following the zoning overhaul, the company issued an almost identical statement from Flynn.

“We remain excited to bring an innovative approach to urban living in Boston and beyond,” it says. “As we look to potential projects in Somerville, we are fully committed to a transparent process that engages all stakeholders as we move forward on specific plans over the next few years. We are currently focused on 1252-1270 Boylston Street in Boston. We look forward to working with the neighborhood, community stakeholders, and the Somerville Planning staff.”

As for the city’s future plans for the square, Davis has some ideas.

One is facilitating the construction of a public market hall—following a model often seen in Europe, where vendors sell goods in small booths—in the square, to potentially serve as an incubator for the next generation of small businesses and to house displaced businesses. Another is increasing daytime traffic in Davis Square, which he thinks can be accomplished through commercial development. 

“Right now, we have a lot of capacity coming into Davis Square in the morning and going out in the evening,” he says. “So why not, at least in the short-term, focus some of the development that will necessitate people coming into the square in the morning to get to work?”

Bingham and Iwerks agree that the center of Davis Square could benefit from more commercial space, which they believe aligns more closely with the city’s plan for the square. Bingham thinks that startups in particular might thrive in Davis and would add, rather than detract, from the tight-knit, creative community feel that has long been the foundation of the square. 

While Davis supported the effort to create a commercial zone in the center of the square, rather than a residential one, he doesn’t want to give the impression that the square is perfect. He believes that the square does not need saving; it needs fixing.

Davis feels that “zoning is the most powerful tool” that a municipality is given, and wants to leverage it to improve the square while maintaining its character—even if that means setting precedents in the city, and drafting new language for concepts like “designated affordable commercial working space” to foster small, independently owned businesses. 

“The one thing that I think gets lost too much in the conversation recently is that things aren’t working in Davis Square and haven’t been for years,” he says. “There are too many banks, chain restaurants, chain stores, and bars moving into the square and too few of the diverse, quirky businesses in the square that we love. Keeping the status quo won’t work because it’s not working now.”

Not every store goes out of business because of high rent, he says, but that does seem to be the trend. Many of the buildings Davis Square are very old and getting very expensive to maintain, he points out. 

“The only way they can maintain these old buildings is to keep raising rent, which is not a sustainable model,” Davis says. 

One of his goals for the beginning of 2020 is to think more broadly about this issue and to work towards implementing some of his and his colleagues’ more ambitious ideas. An action the city has already taken to preserve the feel of Davis Square is requiring a special permit for a formula business—a business with at least nine locations, where all branches have common characteristics such as a uniform or a menu. While Davis says the city cannot ban any certain type of business, what they can do is create an extra hurdle which “gives the city a voice” and is “one less step that a small business would have to go through.”

“We have to think long term on how to make this a place where this type of business thrives,” Davis says. 

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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About the Author

Lilly Milman
Lilly Milman is the managing editor at Scout Magazines. She started as an intern while attending Emerson College in downtown Boston, where she received a B.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing.