1 | Somerville

Somerville’s Inner Belt and Brickbottom districts have the potential to support transformative residential and commercial development. This proposal seeks to use green space and transit as scaffolding for this new development in order to bring together existing neighborhoods and support community visions.

The proposed Diamond Ring bus rapid transit service is only one catalyst for the new transit-oriented development that we envision. Maximizing this investment relies on a range of other urban design strategies and public policies that respond to the site’s unique context.

Green Vision for Inner Belt

Green Vision for Inner Belt

Historical Challenges

The area’s history poses challenges for today’s development of livable, mixed-use communities. Before being filled, the area of today’s Inner Belt was a tidal marsh between the main channel of the Miller’s River and Charlestown. Even with rapid residential growth in nearby East Cambridge and Charlestown, by the 1850s the site was still deemed suitable for only limited development, including an asylum and a state prison. Railroads continued to fill the wetlands for tracks and switching yards. By 1900, the area was a crucial node in the region’s rail network, connecting a web of converging rail lines with nearby docks and depots.

The extensive rail infrastructure contrasted starkly with the dense residential and commercial fabric surrounding the site. The construction of McGrath Highway and the Northern Expressway cemented this division. Our proposal seeks to reconceptualize the site’s historical infrastructure, integrating it into a network of non-motorized and public transport amenities.

Somerville’s Diverse Neighborhoods
Today, Somerville’s Inner Belt is a primarily industrial and commercial area, with approximately 50 businesses in the Inner Belt area. Adjacent to Inner Belt is Brickbottom, which is a mix of residential and commercial, with two large artist residences. In this area (0.39 square miles) there are a mere 468 residents, with only 6.4% of the population under the age of 18. 75% of the housing units are renter-occupied and the median household income is $15,694. Located on the northern side of the Washington Street commercial corridor, is the primarily residential East Somerville neighborhood. In contrast to Inner Belt/Brickbottom, East Somerville has 8,317 residents living in an area of 0.3 square miles, making the area extremely dense (27,379 people/square mile). 67% of the units are renter-occupied and the area median income is $42,755.

Given the distinct characteristics of Inner Belt/Brickbottom and East Somerville, it makes sense to create anti-displacement measures that are tailored to the needs of each neighborhood. Two strategies, one focused on affordable housing development for Inner Belt, while preserving the existing housing stock in Brickbottom, and another strategy that focuses on affordable housing preservation in East Somerville, are needed to prevent the displacement of current residents. Local community-based organizations, such as Somerville Community Corporation, are currently working on the above mentioned strategies and advocating for residents’ needs.

Concurrent Planning Efforts
Somerville’s recently adopted comprehensive plan, SomerVison, outlines the city’s principles for development and how different neighborhoods can support this potential. Inner Belt and Brickbottom are both slated for transformational mixed-use development in SomerVison. For these two districts, the plan calls for 4.4 million square feet of new commercial development, supporting 12,500 new jobs, and 1.9 million square feet of new residential development, enough for 1,750 new households. Somerville by Design, a city-led participatory planning program, is currently developing specific phasing and urban design strategies that will revise past plans for the area to be consistent with SomerVison.

A number of community-led planning initiatives in Somerville also focus on transit-oriented development. SCC recently completed their Community Corridor Planning project, a multi-year effort to distill community goals for development surrounding the Green Line Extension.

Transportation — Long Commute Times
The lack of local jobs in Somerville has caused long travel times to work. Somerville has 0.56 jobs per working resident, far lower than the 2.18 in adjacent Cambridge.

Somerville residents’ mean travel time to work is 28 minutes, compared to the 24 minutes in Cambridge. Travel time to work by car in Somerville is similar to Cambridge, while commute time by transit in Somerville is longer – 39 minutes by bus and 38 minutes by subway, compared to 31 and 34 minutes respectively in Cambridge. This suggests that the long commute time in Somerville is not only due to the insufficient job supply, but also the limited transit access.


Proposal

Transportation
Since the development of Inner Belt and Diamond Ring will be affected by or conditioned upon regional transport projects, such as Green Line Extension and the building of the Inner Belt bridge, project phasing must be considered carefully. The following proposal seeks to coordinate improvements in public transport with local real estate development and travel needs.

Adding service on the Diamond Ring drastically reduces public transit travel times between the Inner Belt and key destinations. Trips to MIT drop from over 30 minutes to less than 20 minutes, and the Back Bay, LMA, and points west drop to under 45-minute travel times.

Development
Dramatically improving transit access should raise land values and foster development. Based on an analysis of regional real estate markets and the industry clusters easily accessible from the Inner Belt, we propose the development program described below.

Development Phasing

Development Phasing

Proposed Development Breakdown

Proposed Development Breakdown

Design

Our proposed design for Sullivan Square, the Inner Belt, and Brickbottom transforms the area’s heavy transport infrastructure into a green network that connects surrounding communities and spurs transit oriented development.

Inner Belt Site Plan

Inner Belt Site Plan

Download the full design presentation or view it below:

Workforce Development
One of the primary concerns of Somerville residents is jobs, both the creation of jobs in the city and creating quality jobs that have good wages and the possibility for career advancement. Through the creation of an MBTA/ Bunker Hill Community College training program, there is the possibility to address the need for local, quality jobs. The training program would include a curriculum/classroom component as well as a training/apprenticeship component. The objective of the program is to address the anticipated future skill deficit the MBTA is facing in light of a retiring workforce by placing program graduates in MBTA jobs. Additionally, the program can leverage the locational benefit of BHCC and nearby maintenance facilities in Inner Belt, Charlestown and Everett. The curriculum could also include training for green technologies like electric buses, which are proposed for the Diamond Ring.

Transit maintenance facilities and educational institutions near the Inner Belt

Transit maintenance facilities and educational institutions near the Inner Belt

Bunker Hill Community College has two workforce development programs that can serve as models for the MBTA Training Program. The Cambridge Biomedical Careers Program offers a nine-month certificate program that trains students for entry-level positions through courses such as biology and biochemistry. The program began in 1992 in partnership with the local non-profit Just-A-Start and has successfully placed hundreds of graduates in bio-tech jobs. The other BHCC model is the Electric Power Utility Technology Program. This program is a partnership with NSTAR and Local 369. Students complete a two-year Associate Science degree in Electronic Technology, while also gaining in the field experience through paid internships. Like the Biomedical program, students gain experience that facilitates their placement into careers with strong earnings potential and possibilities for career advancement.

Beyond the opportunity to partner with BHCC, Somerville High School students could also benefit from a training program that is geared for transit workers. SHS has a Career and Technical Education department and trains students in areas such as automotive industry, machine technology and metal fabrication. The Inner Belt’s proximity to BHCC and Somerville High School, as well as four MBTA maintenance facilities, makes it a strategic location for such a training program. There are several technical high schools with a transit focus in the country, including NYC Transit Tech Career and Technical Education High School. NYC Transit Tech was started in part because of the interest of the MTA in training future workers given the forecasted retirement of a significant part of the workforce. The MTA has donated materials to the high school and hires many of their graduates. The possibility of partnering with Somerville High School could increase the diversity and number of students of different ages that are trained to work for the MBTA.

The MBTA training program, at the community college or high school level, will build upon the apprenticeship model that has been gaining traction in the U.S., but has been held up as a pathway for blue-collar workers in Germany and other European countries for many decades. Apprenticeships, like the Electric Power Utility Technology Program, are developed in partnership with a company that seeks workers who will need less on-the-job training once hired full-time and that will receive classroom training that matches the company’s needs. While there is a downside to too narrowly training the student, by partnering with the community college students have the opportunity to transfer to four-year colleges. The MBTA training program has the potential to address their shortage of trained workers, while also providing workforce development opportunities for local residents, creating a mutually beneficial outcome.

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