Have you ever seen the parcel map for the City of Somerville? They’re on this map of the southeast section of Union Square, appearing as the light gray lines. The patterns here are even more complex than the streets that crisscross and curve around through our city. Like the roadways, the parcels tell a story of the development of Union Square, with larger pieces carved out as Union Square was growing fast at the turn of the 20th century for churches, factories. Smaller parcels were for homes. Like Bow Street that developed its swing to avoid a marsh that’s long gone, the stories behind many of the shapes on the parcel maps are lost. In some places you’ll see the parcel lines splitting right through a building — those are shown in pink. Some parcels are tiny, looking to be only 10 feet wide. Others are locked in, with no access to the street.
These parcels are held by a patchwork of owners, some by the same family for generations. Others, like the Kiley Barrel site, SCAT Building and Public Safety Building, all shown here in blue, are controlled by the city.
One the big challenges for the development of Union Square is along Prospect Street. That area has a long legacy of industrial uses that have polluted the land. The old Millers River that once existed in Union Square was long ago filled in but it continues to flow underground. That buried tidal flow of the water unfortunately sloshes around the contaminants, ignoring those parcel lines. Cleaning up that damage means not just addressing one piece but the extended area all at once.
The Greenline is coming to Prospect Street, with the MBTA stop planned for under the bridge at the bottom of the map. That transit access provides one of the great opportunities along the whole corridor for Somerville to maximize the impact of the Greenline with new housing and offices. The costs to clean up that area are going to be significant, so the development has to be large enough to absorb the expense. The land cost, valuable because of the transit, is going to be higher than other areas, so density in the building will also need to increase. Any new development along this corridor is going to be of a bigger scale than exists within those tiny parcels currently outlined on the parcel map.
But how to do a larger scale development in a patchwork of tiny parcels?
For the past few decades The City of Somerville has taken one approach to the challenge — buying and holding parcels. The City’s gathered over time a modest cluster of them on the corner of Prospect and Somerville Avenue where the old Kiley Barrel business used to be. But properties in this area of Union Square rarely come up for sale.
The City could choose to use eminent domain to redevelop the area, seizing the parcels from the current owners. Since Somerville doesn’t have the expertise or money to develop the area itself, as has happened in other communities, the most likely scenario is Somerville would lease or sell the captured land to a private developer to create housing, offices, public parking, and/or open space.
But shouldn’t the people who own the land now, many who have seen Union Square through its ups and downs for a half century or more, be able to reap the benefits for the future? Is there another option besides eminent domain that could break the stalemate, that could make the property owners into partners?
Land pooling might provide a solution.
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.
Along Prospect Street, where even when realigned the parcels are mostly too small for financially viable redevelopment, a more likely scenario is the property owners would own a share through a commonly-held new development.
There’s big advantages to land pooling. It enables the property owners to remain as active members in the renewal of Union Square and to profit from their own land. It enables the neighborhood to clean up these polluted areas, the City to finance the project, and the community to redevelop an area for economic development and public transit.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council recently hosted an event for their member communities in eastern Massachusetts to learn more about this tool. You can see the slide show from this presentation on line. (That slideshow not opening right for you? Try this other one.)