Somerville's Union Square is betting big on the Green Line Extension | Crain's Boston

Somerville's Union Square is betting big on the Green Line Extension

Some Somerville residents have been fantasizing about the T’s Green Line Extension for a long time. 

“Literally my whole lifetime, I think, and I’m 44,” said Thomas Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been talking about the extension for years—since at least 1990. During that time, Galligani and others have endured more delays than your typical T rider sees in a lifetime of commuting. The biggest came in 2015, when the project to extend the Green Line from its northern terminus of Lechmere to the campus of Tufts University in Medford was put on hiatus after it was found to be more than $1 billion over budget.

The project is back on track—thanks to the federal government's endorsement of a revised budget of $2.3 billion—but it’s still hitting speed bumps. In August the T was forced to end a construction management contract with engineering firm CH2M Hill Cos. after it was acquired by a bigger firm bidding on the billion-dollar job of building the 4.7-mile extension.

Three competing teams—GLX Constructors, Green Line Partners, and Walsh Barletta Granite, JV—must submit paperwork with the city this month to stay in the running. One will be chosen on Dec. 11, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, nearly two months ahead of schedule.

Although its maiden voyage is still years away—the T estimates a 2021 opening—the prospect of a new light rail line is already reshaping business districts in Somerville and Medford. Of the seven new stops planned along the extension, perhaps none is positioned to change as much as Somerville’s Union Square.

City officials and local activists expect the new train stop will be a catalyst for development, and an opportunity to nab some of the real estate cachet from neighboring Cambridge. Somerville has designated seven sites in the area for redevelopment as part of a neighborhood plan that got a nod from zoning authorities in June.

The plan calls for 30,000 jobs and 6,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development, said the ambitious proposal would be a return to the neighborhood’s historic roots, before the post-WWII boom in car ownership.

“It brings Union Square back to its former importance as the central business district of Somerville,” said Galligani. “We’re now reintroducing rail and the emphasis on public transportation, on pedestrian accessibility, biking, which will allow us to create a real urban place where right now it could use some.”

The city selected master developer Union Square Station Associates (US2) to oversee 2.3 million square feet of new development around the T stop, starting with a site just north of the future Union Square Green Line station. Construction is set to begin next year on the site, which is slated for 400 housing units and 175,000 square feet of office space, according to US2.

Rather than compete for big office tenants with the tech hub of Kendall Square in Cambridge, some envision that Union Square will build on its reputation as a home for scrappy entrepreneurs.

“Hopefully it will be halfway between the garage startup space that’s already happening and that big, Kendall Square-scale development,” said Wig Zamore, a longtime community activist who lives in the neighborhood. Zamore points to Artisan's Asylum, Greentown Labs and Canopy as examples of institutions sustaining that startup spirit in the neighborhood right now.

“I think it would help everybody in the long run if we protected our funky little startups who can’t pay high rents on five-year leases,” Zamore said.

Zamore co-chaired the now-defunct Union Square Civic Advisory Committee, which amplified community input and ultimately helped select the project’s developer. He said the development surrounding the Green Line extension could solve multiple problems for Somerville.

"We've unfortunately got the highest population density in Massachusetts juxtaposed with the highest density of polluting surface transportation, both on the road side and the rail side,” said Zamore. Along with more opportunities for alternative transportation, neighborhood plans call for an increase in open space, which currently makes up just six percent of Somerville’s 4.1 square miles.

Meanwhile, rent in Somerville is only getting more expensive. Most of the city's residents commute to neighboring Cambridge and Boston for work, and Zamore said public transit could be just what Somerville needs to attract commercial tax revenue and new housing. The city recently revised its housing rules, requiring new developments to make at least 20 percent of their units affordable.

"Demand for housing is pretty much endless in Somerville,” Zamore said.

Somerville’s vision for Union Square still faces roadblocks. As the redevelopment plan inches through the permitting process, concerns linger about the city’s ability to shoulder the debt of massive infrastructure projects. Last year the city government took on an additional $50 million to fund the Green Line Extension, which is almost entirely financed by the federal and state governments.

Somerville’s Galligani said the long-term benefits of the extension project will be worth the wait.

“We know it’s going to change,” he says. “We’re hoping we can guide that change in a way that’s consistent with the character of Union Square now.”

September 3, 2017 - 2:32pm