- May 25, 2006
- Reaction score
LinkThe Globe said:Union Sq. takes a run at the big time
Somerville's ambitious makeover plan hopes to turn neighborhood into what is hip
By Kristen Green, Globe Correspondent | October 14, 2006
Union Square in Somerville is one of those funky neighborhoods that always seems on the cusp on breaking into the big time of hip, urban centers.
Now, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone has hatched an ambitious plan to complete that transition, one that involves allowing much denser development in the square and rerouting traffic. Union Square already is in close proximity to downtown Boston, and it is slated to receive a new Green Line MBTA station.
He envisions a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with 12-story condo buildings with city skyline views, boutique hotels, and great cafes and restaurants. And he's got the development community interested.
``Clearly it's an area that has a lot of potential just by virtue of where it is," said Will Smith of Boston's Intercontinental Real Estate Corp.
Curtatone's administration is trying to jump-start the square's revitalization by seeking partners to redevelop four city properties, including the police station on Washington Street. A historic firehouse, now rented to a community cable television operator, would be developed into a mixed-used property with retail space on the ground floor. A parking lot kitty corner would also be available for development.
The city is also proposing a zoning change that would double the density of buildings in the area, to about the same as Harvard Square, opening the door for construction of condominium towers with retail and office space on the ground floor.
And Somerville is also considering using ``district improvement financing" to earmark a portion of property value increases for maintaining the streetscape in Union Square.
``The goal here is to make Union Square into a thriving business district, not just to build buildings," Curtatone said. The plan would allow for higher-density development along Prospect Street, now mostly an industrial strip, but would leave intact the more historic part of the square, said James G. Kostaras, the director of Somerville's Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development.
The tallest buildings would be centered around the proposed T station, on Prospect Street just outside the square, with four to six-story buildings fronting Prospect, and 10- to 12-story buildings behind them. Somerville senior planner Joseph Merkel said the square used to have taller buildings, but years ago owners lopped off the top two and three floors. He said there's a good reason development in the square has not evolved naturally.
``The zoning has been prohibitive," he said, adding that he hopes the new rules will inspire property owners in Union Square's core to develop their property or sell it to someone who will.
Smith said his firm will consider bidding on the properties the city plans to offer next year. The company is developing more than 200 entry-level priced lofts nearby on South Street.
To address traffic issues, city planners are proposing to reroute Washington Street through the square so that businesses such as the popular restaurant and bar The Independent are more visible. The plan also calls for converting both Prospect and Webster into two-way streets to allow cars to bypass the square without clogging traffic there.
Much of the planning centers around the proposed Green Line station. While environmental reviews on the transit addition are not expected to start next year, Kostaras said transit-friendly development will proceed before it can be built.
The area of Union Square slated for development of taller buildings butts up against the Brickbottom District, another neighborhood that's slated for a makeover. It's also close to Cambridge's Inman Square, which does not have its own T stop. Union Square already has a certain appeal -- a handful of cool restaurants and regular arts events draw people there. Last year, the city formed Union Square Main Streets, which started a Saturday farmers market and sponsors regular events, like the recent Fluff Festival that drew hundreds.
Mimi Graney, the Main Streets executive director, said the makeover will not only maintain what makes Union Square attractive to artists, but could promote the arts even more. She said the city will provide incentives for developers to build artists' housing and workspaces, and Somerville will make it easier for performers to work the street and host arts events. Kostaras has no doubts about Union Square's future, even at this early stage. ``This is going to be another Davis Square," he said