After more than two decades of planning, local and state officials broke ground Monday at Assembly Row, the mammoth retail and residential complex that developers and civic leaders hope will turn a long-dormant parcel of land along the Mystic River into a thriving, vital neighborhood.
The most effusive praises were sung by Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, who gave thanks to a long list of local and state agencies, individuals and private developers for 20 years of diligent planning and hard work on the project.
An Historic Day
“This amazing achievement we have launched, that was so long in the making, and with so many essential actors and participants, really has truly national implications, and can be quite an example for the entire nation,” said Curtatone of the project, billed as the largest mixed-use, transit-oriented, smart growth development project on the eastern seaboard. “Make no mistake about it, this is a deeply historic moment. It marks a major step forward, not just for our city but for the entire region.”
At the core of the mayor’s comments was a deep appreciation of the partnership forged between the state, the city and the developer, Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT), that helped the project get to this stage.
“At a time when our society is debating whether the government and the private sector can work together, or even should work together,” said Curtatone. “Assembly Square stands as a shining example of what we can all do, and what we can all accomplish by working together with determination, goodwill, and yes, vision and ambition.”
Curtatone also pointed out that, if construction were to cease at Assembly Square today, the site would look as good as it ever has during his lifetime.
“We have been working for this moment for nearly two decades, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of this city and its people for never losing faith and never giving up on its hopes and dreams,” he said.
The complex is ultimately planned to house 2,050 housing units, a 200-room hotel, a plethora of retail shops, a movie theater and a dedicated Orange Line MBTA Station—first new mass transit stop in Somerville since Davis Square got the Red Line in 1984. The first phase of the project is set to be completed by 2014.
“Transit and transportation contributes to the economic vitality of the areas it serves—this is a prime example of that,” said acting MBTA general manager Jonathan Davis. “We are fortunate to have such great partnerships where we have a shared goal: revitalizing the area with commercial, residential and retail services, all accessible by public transportation and a direct connection to Assembly Square and Assembly Row.”
The groundbreaking ceremony signaled the official start of the first phase of construction, although work actually began last Wednesday, and the end product will be the 195-unit Avalon at Assembly Row building, with the 235-apartment AVA Somerville set to follow.
As machinery and workers clamored in the background, several hundred people gathered under a tent at the center of the 45-acre site for a dusty press conference, at which state officials touted the $1.5 billion project as the new model for Bay State development.
The state helped the city finance $25 million worth of infrastructure upgrades, as green lighted by the Board of Alderman—including wider roads, underground water and sewer pipe and new traffic signals—through a program launched in 2008.
"It was not whether we were going to help with this project, it was how," said Jay Gonzalez, secretary of administration and finance for Governor Deval Patrick. "This is the poster child for what we should be doing across the Commonwealth."
From the Ashes of the Edsel
Located just behind a variety of big-box retail stores, the site is the former of home of a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, where some of the infamous Edsel autos were made. Now, according to Phillip Griffiths, state undersecretary for environment, it is one of the largest “brownfield” sites in the state to be fully redeveloped.
“Along with all the tremendous economic development and jobs made possible by this project, there are a number of outstanding environmental and recreational benefits that come along with it,” Griffiths continued. “From an environmental standpoint, this is a win-win project.”
The project’s first phase is also set to include a 6-acre park along the Mystic River, that will eventually will connect pedestrian and bicycle pathways to existing trails at Alewife and in Charlestown.
The Assembly Square Orange Line T Station that will connect Somerville’s soon-to-be newest neighborhood with downtown Boston is expected to be completed by 2014, and will coincide with the complex’s opening that same year.
With an eye towards potential future battles over transportation funding at the state level, Curtatone also took the opportunity to point out the benefits of investing in projects such as Assembly Row, and reaffirmed his commitment to seeing the Green Line expansion become a reality in Somerville.
“This project wouldn’t have happened without a combined city, state and federal investment of $130 million, which leveraged $1.5 billion of private investment, resulting in future tens of thousands of net new jobs, tens of millions of net new tax dollars and revenues for the city,” said Curtatone. “Keep that in mind, because when that debate happens about whether we are going to properly fund our transportation system and make the investments in projects like the Orange Line T station, like the expansion of the Green Line—which will happen in Somerville ... Keep that in mind, because if we don’t make the investment, these types of things do not happen.”