Expanding Boston’s Core: Somerville and Its Competitive Context

1. Context of the problemThe inner part of the Boston region started to assume it contemporary pattern after the Civil War when economically independent and spatially distinct communities started to merge as suburban railroads and streetcars linked them together. They became increasingly dependent on the rise of Boston as a major shipping and financial center in the Northeast. Although each maintained its political autonomy and its particular economic base, the first tier of cities around Boston started to form a continuous urbanized area of neighborhoods with distinct physical or social characteristics, often overlapping municipal boundaries. After World War II, some prospered, others stagnated or deteriorated as their traditional industries became obsolete. Each local government tried to adapt its development strategies to compete more effectively in a changing world, with varying success, as they were predominantly dependent on their own resources – the assessed valuation of property within their borders – and their ability to obtain grants from the Federal and State governments.The transformation of downtown Boston over the last thirty years, after decades of stagnation, has often been described as a miracle. The construction of over 20 million square feet of commercial space has transformed a deteriorating and obsolete city into a thriving financial and service center, the core of a regional economy that has made three successful transitions: from its 19th century industrial base to leading edge defense related research, to information technology and, currently, to biotechnology. The continued expansion of the Massachusetts economy depends in large part on Boston\’s ability to meet the demand for offices and the specialized space for biomedical research. This will be increasingly difficult as, with the exception of parts of South Boston and the South End, available land is getting rare. There is therefore an opportunity for at least some of the contiguous municipalities of the inner core to take advantage of the situation and offer competitive locations to those still available in Boston.Of the old Boston suburbs that are now part of the metropolitan core – Chelsea, Somerville, Cambridge, Everett and Watertown – only Cambridge has succeeded in attracting some Boston-related offices and luxury housing, in Kendall Square and Cambridgeside. Although in a geographically competitive position, Somerville has not benefited from its proximity to Boston\’s downtown. Unlike Cambridge which is well served by the Red Line and is the terminus of the Lechmere Green Line, Somerville does not have direct by rapid transit service, the two stops of the Orange Line, at Sullivan square and Bunker Hill Community College, lying in Charlestown. The Davis Square stop of the Red Line is used primarily by Tufts University and the gentrifying area around it. As a result of this isolation, Somerville, unlike Cambridge, has remained a primarily working class community. Its median 2000 household income of $32,445 is less than Boston\’s $39,629 and Cambridge\’s $47,979. Cambridge\’s diversified economic base, including the employment provided by Harvard, MIT and other institutions and their attendant commercial activities, and the gentrification of its housing stock, has resulted in a steady increase in commercial and residential property values. The resulting annual tax revenue of nearly $220 million (57% of the annual budget) has allowed it to undertake and sustain a vigorous program of environmental improvements and quality public services that has maintained its competitive position in the region. 2.SomervillePart of Charlestown until 1842, Somerville was incorporated as a city in 1872. It became an important railroad, and warehousing center with brick making and meatpacking as its major industries. Its proximity to Boston made it a choice location for working class hous