Part 2: The challenges
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Magoun Square was once a thriving commercial district, offering an array of products to its neighbors and serving them as a community center. Many of us would like to see it fully resume those roles. Achieving this requires realism about the considerable challenges the Square faces.
Healthy businesses are the lifeblood of a neighborhood center. They provide needed goods and services and bring people into the square. They hire neighbors who spend wages at other local businesses, strengthening the local economic cycle. Their premises and buildings collectively create a pleasant, human-scale environment. Their owners and workers often participate in civic activities. The higher tax rates that they pay enable a city to maintain infrastructure, create amenities, and deliver services.
Those businesses rely on some mix of sales from three groups: residents, daytime workers, and customers who come from beyond the neighborhood. Sometimes, if the built environment is sufficiently pleasant and it hosts a sufficient density of comparison-shopping opportunities, customers will come just to be there.
In serving neighborhood residents, Magoun Square competes with Ball Square and Winter Hill businesses. About 4,300 people live within ¼ mile of the Broadway-Medford Street intersection. A report by the city’s Strategic Office of Planning and Community Development tell us that their collective annual consumer spending amounts to roughly $70 million.
But these residents are highly mixed in terms of age, income, education, and ethnic background, with correspondingly different needs, product preferences, and levels of demand. While this kind of diversity makes for interesting neighbors, fragmented demand in such a relatively small market reduces opportunities for specialty stores. Still, Magoun Square captures 30% of spending by consumers in its ¼-mile trade area. But this drops off to 8.7% at ½ mile, and 2.4% at 1 mile.
Neighborhood commercial centers augment sales made to local residents with those made by “destination” businesses. These are merchants who draw consumers from beyond the neighborhood because of their special mix of products and services, the attractiveness of their premises, their reputation for quality and service, or the reach of their branding.
Cara Donna drew customers to Magoun Square from across Somerville, Medford and beyond, who lined up for its tasty pastries. And Little Vinny’s enjoyed an enthusiastic evening clientele from a similar trade area. Regrettably, both closed within the last two years.
Olde Magoun’s saloon still pulls customers from outside the area. CVS does as well. But for a destination business’s customers to linger in the district, other local enterprises must evoke interest, their buildings must be attractive, and the larger built environment must be pleasant, providing a “sense of place.”
Vibrant commercial areas are characterized by continuous, active storefronts with numerous doors and windows. Too many of the Square’s buildings, particularly on Broadway, are set back from the sidewalk and fronted by off-street parking. That, and the street’s width and traffic, discourage pedestrians.
Medford Street has a more intimate feel. But only about half of the Square’s storefronts are oriented to walk-in business. The rest are office and service uses that are uninteresting and uninviting to pedestrians. They don’t belong at street level. But there are so many vacancies that property owners will offer low rents to almost any enterprise that zoning allows.
This leads to another problem. The low rents can entice would-be entrepreneurs who possess limited skills to open a business that they have not adequately planned, or capitalized, or for which they have not accurately assessed market demand. The result is a high turnover rate, which conveys a feeling of impermanence and undermines revitalization momentum.
Most of the Square’s stores that offer retail goods have narrow product selections and limited window space. Available windows are often used ineffectively, and signage can be confusing.
With such low rental revenues, many property owners are reluctant or unable to maintain their buildings. Run-down and poorly decorated structures put off people who are not familiar with the neighborhood.
For these reasons, and because it doesn’t have visually clear boundaries, Magoun Square lacks a sense of place. The City of Somerville’s recent $3 million investment of stimulus-act funds in traffic management and streetscape improvements provides an essential element in recreating the Square’s identity.
For a commercial district to thrive, its customers must also believe that they can easily drive into it, park, and exit. A number of merchants believe that current conditions prevent this. They cite two changes in parking regulations.
Seven years ago the installation of meters ended free on-street parking. And three years ago the city increased meter rates, fine amounts, and hours. Little Vinny’s management reported that the extension of parking-meter hours to 8:00 PM correlated with a 40% drop in the restaurant’s business.
In addition to residents and destination shoppers, the third segment essential to a commercial district’s success is daytime workers. While Somerville’s entire population drops by 26% during weekdays, Magoun Square’s drop is closer to 50%. Its daytime job count is only about 50, as opposed to 300 in both Ball Square and Winter Hill, and substantially more in Davis and Union Squares.
So Magoun Square revitalization faces substantial challenges. But it also enjoys substantial assets. Among these are a committed city government and dedicated neighborhood activists. If they are to succeed, they must be joined by other stakeholders, including merchants and property owners.
I believe that unified stakeholders, fully aligned around a wise strategy, can transform the Square over the long run while making continuous, incremental improvements.
To be continued