Magoun Square Could Get 'Naked' … in a City Planning Kind of Way

Somerville by Design envisions major changes for Magoun, Ball and Gilman Squares.

A "naked intersection" in Magoun Square, a tower in Gilman Square and a new bridge lined with storefronts in Ball Square: Those were some of the ideas presented Tuesday night for the future of those city squares.

The proposals were the results of the Somerville by Design process, intended to prepare the city for changes that would come with the extension of the Green Line through the city.

Jeff Speck, former design director at the National Endowment for the Arts and author of "Walkable City," served as a consultant for the city on Somerville by Design.

The Green Line Extension, which is scheduled to come to Gilman, Magoun and Ball Squares around 2019, is a "game changer," he said. "The neighborhoods [will] change."

"The purpose of this planning process is not to have them change by accident but have them change by design," he said.

Somerville by Design sought ideas, opinions and advice from Somerville residents at a "visioning session" in October, 2012, and at a two-day forum held in November of 2012. Speck and Somerville planning director George Proakis presented the results of that process Tuesday at a well-attended meeting held at The Center for Arts at the Armory.

Preparing for change

In general, the proposals seek to make the squares more vibrant as neighborhood business centers and more friendly for pedestrians, two things that go hand-in-hand, according to Speck.

A vision for Magoun Square, for instance, would include the so-called "naked intersection," otherwise called a "shared space," Speck said. It would consist of a pedestrian plaza at the intersection of Broadway, Medford Street and Dexter Street in which pedestrians, bikes and cars would co-exist without the aid of traffic signals. Doing so would help the square become a more attractive destination for pedestrians and shoppers.

Gilman Square, at the intersection of Medford Street and Pearl Street, would include a similar pedestrian square, according to the Somerville by Design proposal.

Ball Square was less fleshed out, mainly because the MBTA is still deciding on where to position the proposed Green Line station, but one goal would be to encourage pedestrians, using new development and architecture, to cross the bridge toward Magoun Square.

The presentation, which includes drawings and some explanations, will eventually be available at the Somerville by Design website along with other materials connected to the program. The site is worth taking a look at.

Change needs zoning

The Somerville by Design proposals represent a vision for the squares, and change could take years.

Overhauling the city's zoning code is a major part of the process, explained Proakis, because it's the zoning code that encourages and allows the sort of change envisioned by Somerville by Design.

That process, itself, could take time, Proakis said. 

Somerville by Design is funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sustainable Communities program, and that grant ends at the end of this year, so Proakis is hoping to have at least a draft of a new zoning code by then.


jennifer D. January 09, 2013 at 12:48 PM
Pretty cool! Can't wait!
Joe Lynch January 09, 2013 at 01:40 PM
Great presentation.............but in regards to the "naked" intersection in Magoun Square, just one suggestion. If the city really has any intention of trying something like this, do it in Davis, Union, Teele and Ball first. See how it works, then we'll give it a try.................. Joe Lynch
Chris Orchard (Editor) January 09, 2013 at 03:32 PM
That's probably a good idea. As I recall, Jeff Speck mentioned that Somerville should wait off on the "naked intersection" until other communities in the United States have built some and learned from their mistakes. I also wonder if it's the best location for one, as the nearby T stop will be a few minutes walk down Lowell Street and Broadway won't cease being a major thoroughfare. Along Medford Street the Green Line will replicate the direction of travel currently available on the roadway, so, people will be able to hop on the Green Line to travel in that direction instead of driving down Medford Street. But the Green Line won't replicate the direction of travel down Broadway, and Broadway will likely remain a major thoroughfare for cars, especially when Lower Broadway and Assembly Square grow as attractions and more people want to go there.
Chris Orchard (Editor) January 09, 2013 at 03:43 PM
Just to be clear, my previous comment isn't intended to support or oppose the idea of a "shared space" intersection in Magoun Square. It's just that it's an interesting idea, so I'm curious about all the dynamic factors that go into thinking about it. Imagine if there were a trolley line down Broadway, for instance. In the real world, though, I don't see that section of Broadway shedding too many cars.
Joe Lynch January 09, 2013 at 05:07 PM
And let me be clear, anything naked in the middle of Magoun Square is not something I want to visualize anyway.
Charlie Denison January 09, 2013 at 10:01 PM
I think Davis Square would be an excellent place to try the naked intersection concept. Pedestrians would have right of way at all times, followed by bicyclists and motorists. With everyone going slow and mixing together, it would certainly be an improvement over the long waits that the current signals force everyone to endure.
AHM January 09, 2013 at 10:40 PM
Everyone going slow? Being courteous? Don't get out much(just kidding around).
Paula Woolley January 09, 2013 at 10:42 PM
I'm concerned about height restrictions on new buildings, since most of those proposed last night were 4 stories. I attended all 4 meetings of Somerville by Design, and at the meeting where small groups ranked photos of buildings, my group didn't look at height as much as at the design of the buildings. So we "liked" 4-story buildings that had awnings and other interesting street-level architecture, including trees or outdoor cafes, and not just a solid bland brick front. But we also "liked" many 2-story buildings for the same reason. At the same time, we agreed that we didn't want 4-story buildings towering over 2-story 2-family houses ... the height should depend on where the building was being built and what surrounds it. We all liked the idea of having small buildings along the bridges over the tracks at Ball Sq and on Lowell Street, too, as a way to make those stretches more attractive to (and safer for) pedestrians. With Magoun Sq, I liked the idea of traffic calming at that intersection by adding a raised plaza. Maybe the city could add a raised plaza and a blinking red in all directions as a way to try out the "naked intersection" system without going totally naked all at once?
Courtney O'Keefe January 10, 2013 at 07:10 PM
The raised plaza was also a suggestion from the MIT students that put on two great presentations in late 2012. I must echo, however, that this needs to be piloted elsewhere before being implemented in Magoun Square.
Philip DiRusso January 24, 2013 at 09:12 AM
ww2 veteran formely of somerville ,mass worked in the 2 navy yards before going into the service then went to the riggers shop was tag man on # 19 crane also some loco cranes I remember bldg.19 opposite pier 5 those were the good old days.am now affrcted with asbestos related symptoms I am in Tampa Florida now>


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