Building a City Center Serving Six Cities

By Amy Dain

Quick quiz: What is the biggest growth district in Massachusetts outside of the city of Boston right now?

Did you guess Kendall Square? Cambridge Crossing? Somerville’s Union Square? Watertown’s Arsenal Street? Quincy Center? Lynn’s waterfront? Revere Beach? Woburn’s Commerce Way? Waltham along Route 128?

By my read, it is a place without an identity or united governance, a district that straddles the Mystic and Malden Rivers at the intersection of six cities: Everett, Medford, Somerville, Chelsea, Malden, and also a bit of Boston, at Charlestown.

The area made headlines recently for the proposed Sky Everett, a 21-story residential tower. Not many places allow that kind of height. And for decades, Everett did not have the market to support that kind of height. Now, Everett is not alone rising to the sky. Right across the Mystic, in Somerville’s Assembly Row, a roof deck graces the 24th floor of a new 826-residence tower. Just down the river, a 29-story tower of 695 homes is proposed for Charlestown.

The tri-tower-rising only hints at the scale of recent, planned, and potential growth in the amorphous district located as a natural hub between Boston-Cambridge-Somerville, the North Shore, and 128-North. The area’s spokes reach out to Salem, Woburn, Lawrence, and Boston, as well as job sites, neighborhoods, and cool destinations. The area needs good government oversight and public investment to blossom into a bustling, diverse, connected downtown like Massachusetts has not built in a hundred years. City building, despite evidence otherwise, is still possible – and needed.

By my rough count, there are 3,000 dwelling units recently constructed or permitted or now under review in the southern section of Everett, by the river. Everett’s new zoning would accommodate far more than that. In Medford, by the rivers, the count is approximately 2,500. In the part of Chelsea bordering Everett’s growth district, another thousand. And Assembly Row has well over a thousand. 

The area is also a job hub, with the headquarters for Massachusetts General Brigham and for Puma North America (planned) at Assembly Row, the Encore Casino in Everett, and offices for Amazon, life science data firm ERT, and iHeartRadio, among others, by the river in Medford. It is also a shopping, dining, lodging, and entertainment zone. There are even some active industrial properties.

In sum, the six-city area is like a city center, for its density and mix of everything. Except it is not like a city center, at least not yet. For now it is an archipelago of private developments in need of the public connectivity so well known in historic downtowns.

In the 1990s, Everett, Malden, and Medford launched plans for a “Telecom City” to rise on the remediated shores of the Malden River – picture the ‘80s and ‘90s-era office parks of Route 495, box-buildings on sprawling asphalt parking. The idea for the Malden’s shores was to compete with 495, with more of the same.

But then, in the new millennium, an army of young information-workers did not find the office parks hip. Economists started pointing out that asphalt fields are not so fertile for growing new ideas; cities are. Environmentalists decried the isolation of offices by highways as encouraging the kind of driving that heats the atmosphere. The roadways became gridlocked. And anyway, what are telecoms?

Better than a ribbon-windowed, office-boxed, asphalt-framed, car-centered Telecom City, this six-city area needs a real downtown. The location is ideal. The area has the framework for connectivity: Orange Line stations, commuter rail tracks, rivers that run to Boston Harbor, a rail trail from Everett through Malden up to Lynn, bus rapid transit, bus service throughout, private shuttles by land and water, and Route 93. It is surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods, not isolated in the hinterlands. The six-city area is a stone’s throw from many little downtowns of the train-and-streetcar eras – and their grand libraries, indie restaurants, and urban resilience.

Pundits have been saying for decades now: To build great cities like we used to, we have to stop prohibiting them by zoning. Pundits say: See that beloved neighborhood in Back Bay? In Newton Center? In Harvard Square?

All illegal! All out-zoned!

The pundits are right. You can’t build a great urban neighborhood with requirements for large lots, deep setbacks, low building heights, separated uses, and ample parking. But, city building is not as easy as just, “Allow it already.”

Why not? Two reasons. First, the high cost of construction does not make for price-diversity in buildings, and hence new construction does not bring people-diversity and use-diversity. This is a problem for areas that are rising all-new, like the Seaport from epic parking lots, and the six-city area from post-industrial lands. And second, the whole socio-political-economic system is now set up for cars. Without public intervention, private developments will be primarily car-oriented, even when located near train stations, rivers, and rail trails.

 What does it take to generate exuberant diversity?

On the first point, the Boston Globe recently lamented that “The city [of Boston] had a rare opportunity to build a new neighborhood for all Bostonians. Instead, it built the Seaport.” Decades ago, famed urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote that to generate exuberant diversity, a district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition. Dated buildings get priced right for small non-profits, startups, artists, students, and low-income residents. In the Seaport, old buildings were not available for mingling.  By the Mystic and Malden Rivers, the old buildings are industrial; they need remediation or replacement where they have not already been torn down. Low rents do not cover the cost of construction or remediation-and-renovation. The market will not, on its own, deliver new buildings priced for low-income residents and scrappy entrepreneurs. It is the role of government to make sure that diversity gets built in when all-new city-centers rise.

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