Assembly Square betrayal?

On March 1, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

shelton_webBy 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.)

If you had an urgent need to get to Denver, would you begin by sailing east? Probably not. Most of us don’t pursue important goals by heading in the opposite direction.

But that is what the Board of Aldermen will soon consider doing. They will vote on a Zoning Ordinance amendment designed to permit construction of a one-story 130,000-square-foot supermarket on the property next to the new Assembly Square Orange Line Station.

This would betray stated goals of Somerville’s Comprehensive Plan, whose process and products have won high praise as models of effective planning.

Ellin Reisner is President of Somerville Equity Partnership, and a member of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee. She tells me, “To go against what was agreed to in the plan would be very disappointing. Contradicting such a critical element worries me that the city won’t follow through.”

If Ms. Reisner feels a sense of impending betrayal, it is widespread and understandable. Hundreds of people attended 50 meetings and contributed thousands of hours to produce the Comprehensive Plan. City staff produced rich data and insightful analysis, providing an objective basis on which neighborhood advocates, business people, nonprofit administrators and public officials resolved conflicting interests and perceptions to find common ground.

Among the Plan’s consensus goals are preserving diversity, increasing jobs within Somerville, and growing the city’s commercial tax base. These days, preserving diversity means enabling people who grew up here to afford to keep living here.

The best affordable housing program is a good job. But Somerville has only 20,000 jobs and 45,000 working residents, the greatest imbalance among the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities. And our constrained city budget relies heavily on State Aid, which dropped from $57 million in 2002 to $30 million last year.

So the Comprehensive Plan calls for dense commercial development that would solve our fiscal woes and bring 30,000 new jobs to Somerville. It states that over 60% of job growth in the next ten years should be in Assembly Square. In fact, there is nowhere else that that much could come from.

But it’s a realistic goal, because Assembly Square bestrides $7 billion worth of transportation infrastructure. It’s realistic because research and development facilities offer the highest value land use, and Assembly Square is the best location for that sector, after Kendall Square and Longwood, which are filling up. It’s realistic because large office buildings and R&D facilities bring a wide spectrum of jobs with upward mobility, from entry-level to highly skilled.

But it’s realistic only if we enforce high-density zoning. That’s why the 12-acre IKEA parcel that abuts the new T station site is zoned to allow construction of 5 million square feet of office space. A development that took full advantage of that zoning would generate about $33 million in annual property taxes and bring about 15,000 permanent jobs.

A project that large is unlikely. So assume a project only a quarter that size, and compare that to what a 130,000-square-foot supermarket using 40% of the site would produce—about 200 permanent jobs and $320,000 in annual property taxes.

Jim Gallagher, a transportation planner and Steering Committee member, raises another interesting concern. “As a taxpayer, I don’t see how this helps me. Two supermarkets within a mile means one of them will fail. Either this one or the Stop and Shop would not be in operation within a few years, so the taxes collected would be the same. A supermarket on Winter Hill might be successful, but here just seems redundant.”

Aldermen Jack Connolly and Bill Roche submitted the proposed amendment in behalf of Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) who own Assembly Square Marketplace and are now building four well-designed multistory buildings in a well-designed urban fabric, across the parking lot from the Marketplace

They have signed a purchase and sale agreement for the IKEA property, the parcel in question. Neither FRIT, nor the commercial real estate market, is ready to build the dense development the property is zoned for. So FRIT would need a source of revenue to service their mortgage debt. Rent from a big-box supermarket lease would be a big help.

Ms. Reisner, Mr. Gallagher, and many others believe that a grocery store that would serve the Square’s future residents would be a worthwhile contribution to the emerging neighborhood. But squandering the IKEA property’s potential on a one-story supermarket and parking lot is not in the city’s best interest. That’s why it’s illegal.

Advocates have suggested a multistory supermarket design, like the Star Market in Cambridge’s University, as part of a larger structure. FRIT rejects this approach.

I can’t feel angry towards them. I like all the people that I know at FRIT. They are friendly, honest, forthright, and have complied with all the city’s and state’s legal requirements. But I understand that, by law, their primary obligation is to maximize return on their shareholders’ investment, and they are fulfilling their obligation admirably.

Our elected officials have other obligations that include our city’s fiscal health and its citizens’ wellbeing. I believe that approving the Zoning Ordinance amendment would betray those obligations.

Nor do I think that ‘Villens who advocate for wise development are the only ones who would feel betrayed. The Commonwealth, federal government, and MBTA have invested tens of millions of dollars to support high-density development at Assembly Square.

As Steering Committee member Wig Zamore testified to the Planning Board, “If we put a single story grocer next to the state’s first new subway stop in a generation, why would any future governor invest in Somerville? And why should our citizens continue to have faith in their future?”


28 Responses to “Assembly Square betrayal?”

  1. JMB says:

    The way the amendment actually reads, it would not simply “permit” the construction of the supermarket. Instead, it would allow a grocery store up to a certain size to be on the ground floor of a larger building to be APPLIED FOR. Before the amendment, the size of the store was capped to the Ikea footprint. The amendment would still allow the zoning board to deny a single story proposal if that’s what they tried to build.

  2. jeffjones says:

    Thank you for writing this editorial piece. I didn’t know that this proposal is being considered. Yes, assembly square needs high-density, commerce heavy development, not another supermarket.

  3. j connelly says:

    Meanwhile the citizens of Winter Hill remain betrayed because the mindset of some of our elected officials continues to be the developers come first. A supermarket in Winter Hill should be the most important issue.

    Hey be honest, “Mystic View” and all the delays created for years allowed surrounding communities to beat Somerville out. Too much time spent on “planning”. Naturally FRIT complied, they have to. The citizens of Somerville already got taken for a ride with the $25 million Bond to build infrastucture that should have been FRIT’s expense. Then the Bond that the Aldermen passed for that purpose, the mayor raided and took several million out for other projects.

    In these tough fiscal times the citizens needs should come first. The economy does not exist for all the plans the mayor has. FRIT could become FLAT if the economy does not improve.

  4. Nelson Salazar says:

    Winter Hill has already a supermarket. Is there a need for another one? Dont think so.
    Without “Mystic View” Assembly Square would be a mess.

  5. Blood Hound says:

    “Mystic View” well well at last someone said it, “Mystic View Task Force”
    you all let your lungs rant and rave, your heads up your a****s you being one of the loudest Mr. William C. Shelton remember Mayor Gay was a liar a cheat and Joey Cakes was your “White Knight” well now the rust settles in and look what you are getting? Does it hurt because it should!! Pop another pill and do a little dance you just got screwed good.

  6. Boston Kate says:

    “Winter Hill has already a supermarket.”

    Wrong! Stop & Shop is in East Somerville, separated from Winter Hill, by McGrath/O’Brien highway.

  7. Boston Kate says:

    “Without “Mystic View” Assembly Square would be a mess.”

    And it’s soooo beautiful, now.

  8. Where? says:

    Nelson Salazar–where is the supermarket on Winter Hill? since the closing of Shaws/Star, I see nothing. If you live on Temple, Mystic, Jacques, much of Broadway—you have nothing. This should have been a priority to fill that space. Point me toward this market, please?

  9. A. Moore says:

    What difference does it make anymore? Mystic Task Force held this city hostage for years and made a mess of it. They have made this a seperate city from Somerville anyway. They expect people to wait for years for this to come together? All projects change while they are being constructed. This one more so because of the long delays caused by Mystic Task Force. Let’s just get a class action suit and make them pay for all of this. There is nothing here for the people of Somerville, they took that away from us. They should have their own supermarket as well as a city hall and the whole works. And for this we kicked out long time Somerville residents and businesses? Incredible, the citizens of Somerville were betrayed by this whole project. Now all we got was a whole bunch of people shoved into one little spot. Wonder how many from Somerville will actually move into this?

  10. Sam says:

    I agree that if another grocery store is to be built it would be better served in the vacant Star Market lot in Winter Hill. For a lot of people in WH trying to get to the Stop n’ Shop by foot is a nightmare; I did this a few times during the summer when my car was dead and began begging friends to take me along with them whenever they went grocery shopping. I don’t necessarily see a problem with an Assembly Sq supermarket as long as the structure provided for “vertical” development of office or lab space and there was enough new residential housing there to support it without interfering with the Stop n Shop. Actually they should just put a Wegman’s in there. That would solve quite a few problems when you think about it: more lunch options for the office workers and easy after-work shopping. It would also give people more of a reason to go to Assembly square if they didn’t work there (especially for a T-accessible wegman’s…). But again – there should still be the option of “building up.”

  11. A. Moore says:

    And, as for the supermarket, it is the first thing that was said that the people of Somerville were excited to see come in there. Not just the selected few that are trying to tell us what we want. It could well be the only main attraction for the majority of the people here in Somerville. We should build something for them as well.

  12. MarketMan says:

    A. Moore: I heard a rumor that the supermarket going in is Whole Foods, so I doubt that’s the supermarket that you think “the people of Somerville” were excited to see come there.

    I think it’s a good idea to have a supermarket in Assembly, but it MUST conform to high density rules. Otherwise, our government officials will have NO leverage at all when it comes to future developsments like the Green Line.

    Why is there already a low density building for a burger place being built??

  13. Dicky Bird says:

    Well Mystic View you screwed Mayor Kelly Gay “NO BIG BOX Stores” only tasteful development, right! well what have we got coming single story flat roof big box. You were right Mr William C. Shelton,
    Mr. Wig Zamore and the rest of Mystic View gang no more Lawsuits no more anything you just got us the same as what you should be starting to feel as it goes deeper and deeper.

  14. julie says:

    I thought they wanted to put a walmart market next to Home Depot in that empty space? Id be ok with that..its becoming an eyesore its been empty so long..but the new assembly square should be only top notch going in there..

  15. A Moore says:

    Would not surprise me MarketMan. Would have been nice to have a large market like Market Basket or Wegmans but the powers that be I suppose won’t allow something for us common folks here. I haven’t done any grocery shopping in Somerville for a few years now as there is no place I can afford or want to shop at. A couple I know went to the burger place and spent $40 so I guess I won’t be going there. Maybe they just built it for the workmen there.

  16. A Moore says:

    Julie, Walmart pulled out, would have been nice to get the tax money and jobs but I doubt if they would have stayed there. Just was not the right spot for that anyway. Plus I don’t think that was working out for them anyway. The small market concept I thought was good but the location was not, even if it was a different company. I am hearing that everything going in Assembly is upper end which excludes the majority of people in Somerville from shopping there. Places from Newbury Street. It’s way out of my league and most everyone I know. It could have been thought out better and have something there for everyone.

  17. Boston Kate says:

    Actually, a burger, fries and a soda for 2 people comes in a little under $20.00. Certainly no bargain, but there’s always McDonald’s.

    I heard that a Market Basket is going in at the Shaw’s adjacent to Meadow Glen Mall. I like that, but it’s still too far of a walk to help those who patronized the Winter Hill Star Market. Assembly Square just always feels out of the way with limited access. (If we could just get rid of Rte. 93 :) However, I still go there at least once a week. I assume there will be a traffic problem, no matter what ends up there.

    How did Mystic View attain such clout. I would think that the City would have had better lawyers than MV could afford. I see that this all started before Mayor Curtatone took office, but something seems strange with a neighborhood of people going against the Mayor’s plans, when he lives in their neighborhood.

  18. sharon says:

    Another huge mistake by the city. Go over to Station Landing and you find middle-of-the-road eating and shopping destinations. But since we’re too good even for an Olive Garden restaurant, what would you expect? You are so right. While the residents fight the traffic just to live their lives, we won’t have any reason to go down there. So all that talk about the riverfront being ‘accessible’ is hogwash. It will be accessible, but you’ll have no reason to go there, and you’ll probably pay through the nose to park. Another difference at Station Landing, loads of free parking. I had friends who had the same experience at the new burger dive. Two people, at least a $40.00 check……..

  19. A Moore says:

    Another rumor had a Walmart going to Meadow Glen. It sort of would be nice as a lot of the older people here have to travel far to go to one. I know my mother and some of her friends like to wander around there. They never get much but they make a day of it. Lots of the older people here their kids pick them up and take them out to Olive Garden. I don’t have much of an intrest in either but it would be nice for them not to have to travel far. We have so many older people here and long time residents who would like to have something in this city. Not everyone can afford the trendy restaurants or happen to like them. It would be nice to have a mixture for everyone here. Having spent some time in Wilmington NC it works out well having that mix with something for everyone. We don’t go out much more to eat, mostly Mount Vernon or 99 as they have parking and easy access to take my parents there. Anything else in Somerville won’t be food they like or too difficult for my father to get in.

  20. MarketMan says:

    sharon: I know this isn’t your point, but why would anyone want an Olive Garden when you have a *good* italian restaurant down the street (Vinny’s)?

  21. Somerbreeze says:

    The Mayor wants Assembly Square to be Yuppy Heaven, just like City Hall wants Union Square to be, with the onset (onslaught?) of the GLX….

    And Winter Hill will wait ’till Hell freezes over for a supermarket–until Winter Hill gets gentrified, and then City Hall will get behind a Whole Foods in Winter Hill….

  22. A. Moore says:

    We stopped a few years ago at an Olive Garden but the line was so long to get in we left. So still have not tried one. Tried Carabbas in NC a number of years ago but can’t remember if we liked it or not. Don’t like Vinny’s, plus too expensive. Last decent Italian food in Somerville was at the Paddock and before that was the Venice. But that is our taste, no offense to the other places mentioned ot not mentioned. I just think some family type places would be good there as well. Winter Hill, forget supermarket, city wants mixed use development there regardless of what the people in the area want. Plus if any place really wants in there if they can’t make a profit.

  23. JMB says:

    Somerbreeze, you’re dead on. But the GLX simply is NOT COMING. Just read the most recent Mass DOT report. They will not be able to qualifiy for federal funds because we cannot prove that the MBTA will be solvent next year. Look at the first link, page

  24. sharon says:

    MarketMan, I’ve never been to an Olive Garden, but I know it is less expensive and more family-friendly than Vinnie’s, the Foundry, Orleans, etc. Not everyone has the same taste and can afford the trendy restaurants. What’s wrong with options for everyone? And I believe the Mayor’s actual quote, when denying access to the city to Olive Garden, was something like ‘that’s not the type of restaurant we want here’. It’s my way or the highway….literally, as more and more of the older more stable residents of the city are leaving.

  25. j connelly says:

    Good point JMB, but those still trippin from their college days will believe what they want too. If the mayor told them to walk into the ocean in a hurricance, they would. By the time it is built it will be outdated just like the Expressway in the 50’s and the Big (collapse pending?) Dig now.

    But as long as politicians/planners can tout “it was finally built” (billions above budget..aint out of their pockets) that’s all that they care about.

  26. Somerbreeze says:

    When you get down to it, Good Luck to developers and their henchmen pols if they think Winter Hill will be ripe for gentrification…

    Old Somerville will draw a line in the sand right there–Fugetaboutit!

  27. Somerbreeze says:

    Oh, and Thanks JMB, an eye-opener….

  28. AD says:

    Does FRIT buying the Ikea Space destroy the possibility of a Soccer stadium on the same spot?

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