The GLX Effect: Pain Before Gain for Somerville’s Small Businesses

GLXPhoto by John Zorabedian.

With bridges closing and messy traffic detours, local businesses are feeling the growing pains of the Green Line Extension

You see the day-glow orange road signs everywhere, from the Powder House rotary to Union Square: bridge closed; detour. Other signs, a little less obvious, say, “Businesses open.” Staying open has become challenging for some businesses impacted by this spring’s closure of three bridges—part of construction on the long-awaited Green Line Extension project, which is set to finally be completed sometime in 2021.

The effects were almost immediate after the Broadway bridge closed in April, severing a major artery between Ball Square and Magoun Square. Sassafras Somerville closed for good, noting the bridge closure as a factor. Some business owners have told the city that the bridge closures have caused a 20-30 percent decline in business, according to Lauren Drago, an urban revitalization specialist for the mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.

Rhett Richard, the owner of True Grounds on Broadway in Ball Square, says business was down about 10 percent in the first week after the bridge closed, which initially gave him hope that the construction wouldn’t be too painful. 

“But now we’re down more than 20 percent, and that’s a lot,” Richard says.

A Magoun Square resident himself, Richard takes his bike to work many days and can ride around the bridge without too much trouble. But some commuters who would normally stop at the cafe on their way to work are avoiding the square. 

Richard says he plans to cut back hours after Thanksgiving, eliminating the closing shift, which means potentially cutting some staff. “When we go into the winter season, we try to squirrel away money,” Richard says. “I’m considering taking out loans just to have that cushion.”

The Broadway bridge will be closed through next March, assuming construction stays on schedule. 

“The amount of time until the bridge is actually done and until we see the train coming in, it’s going to be so long,” says Nancy Fucile, who runs Victor’s Deli on Broadway in Ball Square with her husband, Jason Fucile. “You’re never going to make back what you lost during the time when you were losing business.”

Fucile, whose parents Rosa and Victor Moccia have owned Victor’s Deli for 37 years, says her customers have complained that the bridge closure and traffic detours have made getting in and out of Ball Square a pain for some and a complete deterrent to others.

“I posted on Facebook, ‘Don’t be afraid to come into Ball Square, because there’s no traffic coming in and there’s plenty of parking, so it’s actually easier to get in here,’” Fucile says.

The detours are a hassle for employees and business owners who live farther from the square, too. At Taco Party on Broadway, night manager Stephanie Clifford says a few staff members take advantage of the “bridge hopper,” a shuttle service to get people around the bridge detour, funded by $400,000 from the city.

Some Ball Square businesses, like Sound Bites, continue to do well. Other spots are fortunate to have a strong delivery business, including Taco Party, which uses the delivery app DoorDash to help make up for less foot traffic. 

Lindsay Griffin, who has owned a salon (Lindsay Griffin + Co.) on Bristol Road near Broadway in Ball Square for seven years and recently expanded, says her business is less affected than others. Her clients book appointments in advance and come from all over, and the parking opened up by less traffic in the square is actually a welcome change. She’s keeping positive about the future benefits of having a new T station up the street. But she acknowledges that some of the businesses in the neighborhood that rely on local residents coming into the square are hurting.

“I don’t think people who live in the area truly realize the impact that it has on a lot of these businesses,” Griffin says.

Photo by John Zorabedian.

A Long Time Coming

The Green Line Extension, or GLX as it’s efficiently known, is a monumental, $3 billion project that’s been planned for decades. As everyone who lives here knows, it is long overdue. 

Now that construction is finally picking up, with five new Green Line stations being built in Somerville and one in Medford near Tufts University, the side effects feel all-encompassing for Somervillians. Not since the Red Line was extended to Davis Square in 1984 or the construction of Route 93 and McGrath Highway in the 1950s has Somerville undergone such a transportation transformation.

The development that will come along in the wake of the GLX—more construction, more investment—will be felt all across the city. In the meantime, it’s the businesses and residents of Somerville who are bearing the brunt of the GLX project’s cost.

Dimitra Murphy, owner of Daddy Jones bar in Magoun Square, grew up in East Somerville in the ’80s.

“Magoun is one of the last neighborhoods to be thought of for development,” Murphy says. She likes the way Magoun is now, with all the funky little businesses, and many new ones popping up even as old ones close.

“But we still need support,” she adds.

Across Medford Street from Daddy Jones, Pennypackers has been dealing out gourmet sandwiches for the past six years. Owner Ryan McGuire says “not many people” make it over to Magoun Square from hotter neighborhoods, but the Green Line construction is adding insult to injury, with Magoun sandwiched between the Broadway and Medford Street bridge closures. 

“I’m concerned at the moment,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s very difficult for our staff to get here. We do catering all around town, and we’re almost trapped [between the bridges]. We’re sort of confused as to why they have to do both at the same time. I guess the train’s coming in, it has to be done, but it’s fairly painful.”

As McGuire loaded up his food truck for a wedding that day, I asked him, “Is the Green Line Extension going to help Magoun?”

“I imagine so,” McGuire answered. “I’m sure everyone’s property values and rents are going to go up substantially. But we’ll see. I’m sure it will be good for businesses—if their rents don’t price them out of the neighborhood.” 

A New Era for Union Square

Perhaps no Somerville neighborhood is going to see more change as a result of the GLX than Union Square.

The Union Square T station will help draw an influx of residents and commuters to live and work in new high-rises set to break ground this year on Prospect Street, the first phase of a massive development project managed by Union Square Station Associates (US2). The development, marketed as USQ, includes a 20-plus story, 450-unit residential tower next to the T station alongside 175,000 square feet of lab space. When construction is complete, Union Square will become a smaller rival to Kendall Square a mile down the road in Cambridge, which is still booming with construction cranes and new buildings springing up to house the biotech, pharma, and other big companies, like Boeing, that keep moving in to take advantage of the proximity to MIT and the educated workforce.

Greg Karczewski, president of US2, told Scout in a statement that the development, which will eventually add 1,000 new housing units, including 200 designated as permanently affordable, will create “an economic engine for the city,” supporting the city with taxes and “providing a place for existing and future innovative businesses to grow.”

In addition to 1.2 million square feet of lab and office space, the development plan calls for creating new spaces for ground-level retail, art space, and public open space, which Karczewski said will “support and grow the character of the neighborhood.” 

Thousands of new people pouring off the T to work in those businesses every day will drive more foot traffic to the local restaurants and small businesses in the square, says Lindsay New, a board member of Union Square Main Streets (USMS).

USMS is providing technical assistance and marketing support for the businesses in the square, helping them to navigate the construction and all that’s happening within the community. The nonprofit is also advocating on businesses’ behalf in discussions with the city and the developers.

There are pains from the construction, New says, especially with streets ripped up in the square for sewer work and streetscape improvements. Bridge closures, the road work and detours, and already-limited parking in Union Square have been causing traffic jams and problems for delivery trucks trying to load and unload. 

Yet Union Square is still a draw, thanks to the farmers market, hip restaurants, tap rooms, and shops in places like Bow Market. USMS, the city economic development office, and neighborhood groups are working hard to help businesses through the rough patches.

“Personally, I’m ready for the construction to be done,” New, who has lived in the neighborhood for close to a decade, said while working at the USMS tent at the farmers market. “At least the streetscape and the sewer work that’s going on now, we’ll be very happy to have those improvements. I think we just try to keep our friends close and keep fighting for the Union Square that we want, and hoping that’s what [we’ll] have. As stuff changes some things will be better, and some things will be different and maybe not better. But we just have to keep trying to advocate for ourselves and our vision of what we want this neighborhood to be and hope for the best.”

Keeping the Small Business Community Alive 

It’s hard to predict the future, but some of Somerville’s small business owners are cautiously optimistic. Everyone wants the Green Line Extension to make Somerville an even better place to live: more convenient transportation, more connected. and more community-oriented.

Business owners like Murphy and Griffin are among those helping themselves by sticking together.

Griffin and Murphy have big ideas for linking the businesses in Ball Square and Magoun Square with neighborhood events. Murphy is organizing a benefit show in August with local Somerville bands at the ONCE ballroom to support artists and businesses. Last September, the Ball Square Business Association, with support from the city, hosted “A Ball for Squares,” a street fair for families with vendors, food, music and activities for kids. The event will take place again this year, and Griffin hopes it will be a draw to get people to shop and enjoy the neighborhood, which she says is frequently overshadowed by nearby Davis Square. 

For many business owners, it’s difficult to make commitments to attend community meetings and keep up with networking emails, on top of the daily work of running a business.

“We all have families, we all run a business, we all work 24/7,” Griffin says. “But the power of bringing the community together is huge.”

Murphy says the business community needs the support of the local residents most of all, if Somerville residents want the independent businesses they love to survive.

“Let’s not be looking back saying we wish those restaurants and businesses didn’t close,” Murphy says.

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

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