Tag Archives: development

Leaps in Assessed Values Tell Varied Stories for Union Square Properties

MapThe City of Somerville recently data on the City’s Key Systems Indicators.  Most interesting for Union Square Main Streets was the change in assessed values for commercial properties in the neighborhood.

The City explains, “This map shows the average growth in the assessed value for each parcel in the City. Dark red parcels tend to either be newly developed commercial properties, or parcels where the owners made significant improvements. White parcels indicate negative or zero growth (or in a few cases, missing data). “

While the increase in assessed values is nearly universal across the city, there’s some areas showing a higher than average increase in value.  What story is this map telling about changes in Union Square?
BronwynThe black arrow highlighting this dark parcel shows the property were Bronwyn restaurant is today. The increased assessed value represents the significant renovations by new business as they invested in the building.

Wagner JewelryPointed out here, Wagner Jewelers is a long standing Union Square business that expanded this past year. As part of the expansion, the retailer maintains their entrance and added an accessible entrance on Bow Street.  A significant renovation is clear to see here.


It’s not as clear why this parcel has increased in assessed value.  It’s the playground atop Prospect Hill.  It’s city-owned property so assessing for tax purposes wouldn’t properly apply here so this may be an error.  But why a different rate of change for the playground and not for the rest of the park with Prospect Hill Tower?  The playground was renovated a few years ago.   While the increase in values are for rate of change between 2013 and 2014 its important to note that properties are up for a more detailed reassessment every five years.  Those much appreciated improvements to the park would be reflected in that increase in value.


There’s a couple properties where it’s more challenging to see why a property might have increased in value.  Citizens Bank + Reliable Market

This arrow shows the property with the Citizens Bank and Reliable Market.  Both of those businesses did some very modest improvements this past year. They were also added to the Union Square Revitalization Plan.

181 Washington (1)The properties at 181 and 197 Washington Street, marked here, increased in value. The buildings on the sites were approved for demolition.  Applications to build on the properties were approved by the City but are currently under appeal from abutters.

Future Greenline Allen St

The future Green Line station undoubtedly is having an impact on nearby properties.  This one on the end of Allen Street saw a big jump in value, despite being mostly a vacant lot with a low commercial building on it.  The property is in the Union Square CCD-55 — so while that adds value isn’t not as significant as the CCD-70 immediately beside it facing Prospect Street.  It was however one of the properties included in the D-2 block as one to be acquired under the Union Square Revitalization Plan.

Mike's AutoThe changes on this block, from Dunkin Donuts to Mama Gina’s, tell a more complicated story.  The darkest band on the right is where Ebu Sushi’s improvements inside and out added some value, moving from an assessed value in 2012 of $533,800 to $885,300 in 2014.

However,  the quality of the structures on these parcels are such that the typical downtown model is reversed – the land value here is greater than the value of the buildings.   This block, referred to as D-6, is part of the Union Square Revitalization Plan, and the coming of the Green Line and the opportunity for redevelopment are changing the profile here.

Several of these properties have changed hands this past year.  For example, Mike’s Auto at 1 Union Square (also listed as 298 Somerville Ave) was sold for $2 million. Back in 2012 it was assessed for $774,700.  After the sale the property was assessed this year at $1 million.  9 Union Square, where the Chinese Take Out is, has had no investment in the building itself, the value still grew from $1.125M in 2012 to $1.575 in 2014 as the property sold and the land increased in value.



Could a Master Developer Operate Like a Land Pooler? What’s Land Pooling?

With the conversation about the engagement of a master developer for Union Square, I’m reminded of the idea for Union Square that stalled — land pooling.

Basically, it was a way for current property owners to be partners in a new development.  Land pooling is a tool actively used in other parts of the world but new to the U.S. Roughly, it allows the current property owners to continue hold an ownership stake in the area but in a different way.  In some communities, the properties are re-aligned, with the owners getting a piece of land back in return for their original parcel, roughly proximate and proportionate to the original site.  A small piece of each parcel is taken in the process to provide for common use — either to create space for  parks or roadways, or to be used as a means for financing the project as a whole.

See our article from back in 2011 when we first looked at the concept. 


Redevelopment Takes a Leap Forward in Union Square with Call for Master Developer

Redevelopment in Union Square and the City’s plans to engage a Master Developer as a partner in redevelopment of properties identified in the 2012 Revitalization Plan has been on everyone’s lips. There’s so many pieces of information to draw together and so many conversations to consolidate we’re not ready yet with an article that synthesizes it all. For now, passing along the scattered pieces of the story and more to come next week.

Union Square Revitalization Plan

WBUR reports City of Somerville seeks Master Developer for revitalization plan for Union Square: “Now, with Union Square, the city is taking a much more active role. As part of the Davis redevelopment plan, the city took only two properties by eminent domain. For Union Square, it has designated seven plots of land for possible taking at an estimated cost of $26 million.  Some acquisitions, like those where the T stop will eventually be built, have already been completed. Others that are still up in the air consist of mostly automotive shops and gas stations, but also J.T. Scott’s gymnasium….
Curtatone says it’s possible business owners, like Scott, will be allowed to redevelop their own land, but only if the plan meets the city’s criteria. Even then, he says it’s unlikely because the city prefers to have one developer for all Union Square properties taken by eminent domain.

“We cannot afford to have certain blocks developed to their highest potential and others not,” he said. “One, we will not create enough value for any potential partner, and two, this city misses out on an opportunity to build the neighborhood it hopes and dreams to create.”


Mayor issues open letter on plans for Master Developer.
RFQ issued by the City of Somerville for Master Developer

Mayor and City staff host on-line chat to discuss Union Square redevelopment, master developer.: “After weighing both approaches (individual versus a master developer), we are confident that the potential pitfalls are greater if we do not use a master developer and rather allow speculative individual developments that won’t create the cohesive development that fits in with the neighborhood, won’t provide for the needed infrastructure improvements and won’t achieve the community’s goals in SomerVision.”

Mayor interviewed on Union Square development in Boston Globe: “From the bridge, where the new Union Square station is expected to be completed in 2017, Curtatone pointed to a gritty metal scrapyard and a used plumbing and heating supply shop next to a set of commuter rail tracks. “This will change,” said Curtatone, looking over the 3.8-acre site, where up to 600,000 square feet of new development is expected – including buildings as high as 10 stories – with the subway stop as its hub. “It’s the transformation that we all dreamed about.”  In economic terms, Somerville has been able to quantify the benefits. By 2030, the city projects that 17,300 new jobs and 3,600 residential units will be created around Union Square and at the Washington Street station nearby, which is also expected to open in 2017.”

Boston Globe Op-Ed by Paul Marrow of Commonwealth Magazine: “The old brand of urban renewal was a top-down force that focused on demolishing and building structures. And it left behind some of Somerville’s worst spaces.As Somerville prepares for the first phase of the long-awaited Green Line extension, it’s looking to turn that old urban renewal model on its head. The city is embracing the legal powers of urban renewal to overhaul its Union Square neighborhood, but in a way that’s deeply grounded in the existing community. In the process, Somerville is demonstrating what modern city-building looks like: locally focused, reliant on public transit, and grounded in entrepreneurial culture.”

Parsons Brinkerhoff leading planning and design of roadway and infrastructure improvements in Union Square. Report from the first community meeting November 18.

Inspiration for a Union Square Transit Hub

Special for Union Square Main Streets by Adrienne Mathews

Rendering of current design for the future Greenline station for Union Square.

Perhaps you’ve heard? The Green Line is coming to Union Square! After some delay, we expect its arrival in 2016. The land has been purchased, station designs prepared, and rail track alignments planned. The MBTA have given us a design and plan for the station itself, including a few bike racks and pick-up/drop-off for taxis, private cars, and The Ride. But so far there are no set plans for how the station would integrate with other transportation links in Union Square.

Even without the trolley Union Square has some transportation assets, albeit with some qualifications. There are some marked bike lanes to support safe cycling. Five bus lines serve the Square, but with roughly 20 bus stops within a ¼ mile (about a 5 minute walk) of the central plaza the bus network is dispersed and difficult for newcomers to navigate. Motor vehicle traffic is the primary transportation mode here, and dominates the roadways and intersections. The opening of the T station with a new transport mode for Union Square presents an opportunity to improve and rebalance all transportation in Union Square.

Key to Union Square’s success is not just the opening of the new rail station but effectively and efficiently allowing for the transfer and change between different modes of transportation: subway, bus, taxi, bicycle, as well as our own two feet. Looking at successful projects in other communities offers some helpful models for this neighborhood.

Victoria Park Station is a multi-modal station that provides access to the Bloor-Danforth (Green) metro line connecting to downtown Toronto. An adjacent at-grade sheltered bus terminal serves four local bus lines. The site also provides a taxi stand and a pick-up/drop-off area. On-street bicycle routes allow safe connection by bike, and bike parking is provided in front of the station. Ample sidewalks give pedestrians comfortable space for walking, with some buffer from the road. A crosswalk aligned to the main station entrance gives pedestrians priority access, shown in this recent 3D plan prior to its renovation.

Victoria Park Station, Toronto

Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California serves three BART transit lines. The station sits between a bus station on one side and a mixed-use development on the other, with a pedestrian route connecting these underneath the elevated rail line. The bus station provides access to 11 bus lines, with shelters at all stop locations. The station has great bike amenities for over 150 bikes, including standard bike parking racks, a secure bike station with 20 secure bike lockers, as well as bike valet parking. There’s even a bike shop for sales and repairs.

Fruitvale Transit Village, Oakland

London’s Finsbury Park Interchange Station is a busy multi-modal transit station in North London, carrying about 85,000 passengers per day. The station connects commuter rail lines and two London Underground lines. Just outside of the station, stops are available for 12 bus lines, many of which terminate at Finsbury Park. Outside the station, ample and comfortable waiting areas for buses and taxis are provided underneath a large canopy, which also serves as a landmark feature of the station. Across the street from the station is a bike parking facility for 125 bikes, one of London’s largest secure, staffed, and covered facilities.

London’s Finsbury Park Interchange Station

London’s Finsbury Park Interchange Station

More locally, Davis Square provides a good example of convenient transit hub. Around the corner from the College Avenue entrance, a sheltered bus station serves six bus lines. In addition to large swathes of bike racks, a new sheltered bike storage facility provides a more secure bike parking option. The Somerville Community Path ends just where the MBTA busway begins, providing access for buses and pedestrians. There is no park-and-ride or formal pick-up/drop-off site, having been discouraged by the Davis Square Task Force during the planning process. Signalized zebra-striped and brick-paved crosswalks provide safe crossing locations within the central business district and between the two station entrances, on College Ave and on Elm Street.

Davis Square bicycle parking

Davis Square Station bicycle parking

Integrating transport modes in a convenient, accessible, and safe way will be one of the most important factors in the success of Union Square Station and its potential for development as a transit hub. As Davis Square has demonstrated over the past 30 years, capitalizing on public transit is a great driver for development and contributes greatly to a lively urban center and public realm. Union Square could benefit tremendously from the opportunity that the T station presents. Many of the pieces are already in place in Union Square, with some great local amenities and a strong community. If we can exploit the potential and plan appropriately, transit could become another of Union Square’s strengths.

Proposed Zoning Not Right Direction for Union Square Development

The City of Somerville’s Planning Board and Board of Aldermen are reviewing a proposal that would rezone two areas on the edge of Union Square.  On Somerville Avenue between Church and Carlton, that is, the block that includes Market Basket, would be changed from current Business (BA and IA) only designation and along the west side of McGrath Highway from Washington Street to Greenville would be rezoned from Business (BB) to CCD-55, the same zoning as the central commercial area of Union Square proper.

The staff in the City of Somerville’s Planning Department prepared a report and are recommending approval of the proposal.  Their report has good detail on the specifics of the change and is worth a close review. 

Union Square Main Streets believes the proposed amendments to re-zone the parcels along McGrath Highway from Greenville to Washington Street and on Somerville Avenue between Church and Dane Streets is inappropriate for these particular parcels and serves to undermine the business district of Union Square.

Somerville’s CCD-55 zoning designation was intended to incentivize in-fill development, particularly in the tightly woven commercial areas of Union Square where inappropriate business uses, open parking lots, and set-back residences have created “missing teeth” in the fabric of the district. These “missing teeth” stall pedestrian activity in the area, weakening the links in activity between individual businesses and undermining the viability of the Square as a whole.  Requirements in the ordinance – non-residential first floor uses, a significant increase in FAR, design that maintains a continuous street wall – answer to the needs of a shopping district with mixed use development in keeping with the historic fabric of the area.

The areas proposed by this amendment are not appropriate additions to the Union Square CCD-55 district.

Loss of commercial properties:  Somerville has a small commercial tax base. The long-term viability of Somerville as a community where one can live, work, play and raise a family requires that areas for businesses be protected.  Moving these parcels from their current designation of Business A, Business B and Industrial to CCD-55 which allows for residential on all but the first floor, means that we’ve lost, for generations, space for essential commercial development.

Weakening of Fledging Market in Union Square and Undermining of Pedestrian Activity: We anticipate that commercial spaces in any mixed-use properties in these locations will be difficult to lease.  Away from the high-traffic areas it won’t be attractive to retailers and as a mixed property it is less attractive for office uses.  By way of comparison, consider the challenge in Davis Square to lease the property at the corner of Meachem and Dover Streets behind the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square where Candlewick Press is today. As we’ve seen in the recently approved 70 Prospect Street project, designs with more than half of the ground floor for screened parking have been allowed in Somerville’s CCD-55. None of these scenarios serve to foster an active pedestrian environment and Somerville’s goals for economic development.

Depth of Parcels on Somerville Avenue Inappropriate for CCD-55: CCD-55 parcels are generally shallow, following along key roads and sidewalks.   The properties on Somerville Avenue being consideration for designation are three to four times the depth of the rest of  the other CCD areas. If there is a thought to rezone the area a better designation would be a Planned Unit Development (PUD).

Historic Preservation of American Tube Works, Homes on McGrath: Within each of the areas there are structures of significant historic value including the site of the former American Tube Works on Somerville Avenue and several fine homes on McGrath Highway.  None of these structures are currently protected through Local Historic District designation but Somerville should serve to avoid the demolition of these properties, particularly the American Tube Works structures.

CCD-55 zoning is attractive to developers because it allows for a more profitable project with a significant increase in density and lower parking requirements.   The bonuses should serve to transform the district’s missing teeth, not used for development that doesn’t serve community interests.


Learn About Current Development Proposals

Three upcoming community meetings on two different development proposals.

Community Meeting on 70 Prospect Street called by Maryann Heuston
Monday, February 4
6:30 at the Argenziano School  Public Safety Building,  220 Washington Street

This is the triangular parcel at the intersection of Webster and Prospect Street where there’s been various auto uses.  Current plan is for 15+ condos with parking and two small commercial spaces on the ground level.


Community Meeting on 197 Washington Street (Cota Funeral Home) and 181-191 Washington Street (Boys and Girls Club) called by Tom Taylor
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
6:30 pm at the Argenziano School

Historic Preservation Commission Meeting on a determination of 197 Washington Street as “Preferably Preserved.”
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

These two meetings are related to the redevelopment of three adjoining parcels with 2 structures — one to be affordable housing, the other market rate.