As someone who dares to question politically charged topics, I learned two key elements--do the research and weigh all sides of the argument. Even most well intended writers don't have access to all the information because it's simply unavailable. That is why I believe it's important the public comment on every article of concern. Much of this I’ve framed from articles and documents found on the web. If you Google “Assembly Square Smart Growth”, “Back Story to Assembly”, you will find information of the heavily debated parcel of land which borders Charlestown and Medford.
“The truth lies somewhere in the middle of two-sides”
Assembly Square Mall of 1980 was a shopping center convenient for working class residents of Somerville due to its proximity to neighborhoods. It became a gathering place for young families, with an adjacent cinema. Residents were excited about its development because it meant they didn't have to venture off to shopping malls within the enclaves of Rt.95 suburbia.
It would soon be deemed an "urban wasteland", by critics who looked upon it with scorn. The largest parcel of land in the entire region, yet underdeveloped and underappreciated for its potential to be something greater. If developed properly, it would boast pride for its historically well-known scrappy working class town, conservative talk radio would use as an unwelcomed reminder.
As predicted, by 2014 we will witness its transformation into a modern day "urban village". A vision which provides a renewed sense of hope that it will become what the former project failed to do. A place envied by it's neighbors, but more importantly, it will be a shopping extravaganza, one that is appreciated by all residents within the community and beyond city limits.
For anyone to believe this story was not laced with deep rooted class-based tensions is to be naïve. Testimonials by local loyalists who have lived here among generations of families dating back to the early 1900’s will tell you how they feel about the no-end-in-site-progressive-encroachment. As a native who has seen and felt changes which impacted our old neighborhoods, although trying to remain positive, I continue to worry as the song goes..."My City Was Gone", that one day, too—My city would vanish only to be replaced by the narrow vision and personal dream of outsiders far removed from it's working class idenity. Two stories of Akron and Somerville may not be identical, but the outcome is the same and shared by local residents—there before us is a great sense of loss and whether good or bad, it was that place we called home.
Most reasonable people understand that change is inevitable. It can be as slow and steady as the ocean tide or quick and unexpected as a snow storm in the month of May.
It’s a complicated story with peaks of hope and valleys of despair— hard-headed Chiefs suffering from deeply flawed egos unwilling to compromise coupled with lack of well-intended Indians focused on reasonable expectations hoping to achieve balance.
Viewing it's Geographic proximity—Assembly’s location is nestled between four modest shopping centers: Meadow Glen, two polarized centers: one old--one new at Wellington, and a big box plaza viewed behind said parcel in Medford which accommodates another Home Depot, Costco and Best Buy, other stores and restaurants. Currently, two train stations lie between, later one added at Assembly: Orange Line MBTA stations –Sullivan (Assembly) Wellington with a commuter rail running parallel. There are also several or more long-term occupants who have endured throughout and have dug in their heels. However, eminent domain could change all that once construction is underway.
Connecting them all is one of the most heavily traveled roadways, Rt. 16, which spans from Rt. 2 Alewife in Cambridge to I 93 Medford. If given a choice, this road would be my last option of travel. Some of the drivers are lunatics. I’d rather take my chances hang-gliding off a skyscraper in downtown Boston at midnight. The antiquated roadway system is ineffective and does not meet today's great demand of daily motorists and large industrial size vehicles. What can I say—I DETEST THIS ROAD.
As you enter this stretch of roadway from West Somerville, you will see Meadow Glen Mall on your left, which locals refer to as “Ghetto Glen”. It sort of reminds me of what Assembly ended up becoming until it finally closed its doors for good. However, with the exception of Kmart, which was given a life time sentencing for good behavior for reasons undisclosed. It is my belief that granting Kmart a 99 year lease created decade long delays which stood in the way of mixed use progress.
If one side was unwilling to compromise, some impartial body should have been appointed to make decisions. Concerns over political graveyards is what created stalling. Not every politician can be hailed a hero. Those who are willing to take needed risks, can handle defeat with grace in the face of turmoil, should be respected and regarded as a person of courage, strength and endurance.
We can’t all be winners all of the time—better to take a few losses as gained experience. It should be a win for the majority, not the minority. They are only good as the constituency who believe in them and if they lack their full support, eventually all is lost. We saw this with DKG, who made a few political enemies which compromised her professional reputation and position as mayor.
As we watched our real estate taxes triple since 1998, our greatest concern was about the hornet’s nest at Assembly Square which cost millions in lost revenue. How much was foresaken due to ongoing delays and ego bruising, unimportant deliberations over the large parcel of underdeveloped land? It appears there were a few self-serving stakeholders with poor vision of what really mattered. Their focus should have been on what was important for the residents of our city.
Going forward, amendments passed by our newly elected Mayor Joe Curtatone in 2004, made certain that lawsuits would not delay projects and that not one single group would be able to make decisions. Over the years, I have felt that our new mayor was leading our city into a positive direction, benefiting all. He made some good decisions, those which would ensure continuity, strengthen goals while providing fairness among those vested. Along with much needed guidance which would quickly defuse any attempts of taking control of the project or preventing steady progress—which we saw too much of during the previous administration.
Some observers would compare Assembly Row to construction sites in nearby towns where similar problems erupted— such as waterfront proposals being stalled due to local opposition and overly-dense, newly constructed sites halted by building and zoning code restrictions. Two examples: Beacon Hill and Back Bay, were envisioned for Assembly Row. However, their roadway access is not the same--East Somerville and Assembly Row are separated by a heavily traveled secondary roadway which serves as a conduit to I 93 above, too dangerous to travel by foot.
In my opinion, speculations made of upper income bracket holders increasing the city’s tax base is unsubstantiated hearsay. Those who have the privilege, opportunity and connections to help manage their money are generally looking out for themselves, not making donations to the city in which they reside. Some are here temporarily and only choose to remain if there is a long-term stake involved in their investment. As far as home/condo ownership goes—I would wager that an unbiased, thoroughly researched survey would reveal that many would flip their home in a heartbeat if it meant they would be able to make a substantial profit.
Many locals would not do the same because there are distinct differences in what they value most and money is not at the top of their list.
Those who are independently wealthy do not have to rely on location, as working class families. We are rooted here from the day we are born. The only reasons which drive us out are drastic changes which impede on our quality of life such as takeovers, a sense of abandonment by those we trusted and maybe personal factors, such as divorce or retirement. For some to misconstrue our real intentions of resentment towards gentrification is typical of those who suffer from entitlement, the same people who never accept responsibility for their actions or behavior.
I find it inconceivable to envision the enormity of traffic another overly developed parcel of land would create. Assembly is by far the largest swath of land of them all. In my opinion, there is already too much going on in this region for there not to be some unforeseeable consequences.
If there must be development—where is the plan to revise and upgrade a system of roadway to manage this great endeavor? And who will pay for it?
Three stories that came out of the Assembly debacle I view as ridiculous—
First: Granting Kmart a 99 year lease—no one business or person should have exclusive rights to mixed use property. It should be impartial and fair to everyone involved in leasing space.
Second: A lawsuit filed by a non-abutting, neighboring resident against the city planning board. The claim was that the big box development would depreciate her home value, impose a commuting hardship and negatively impact her quality of life. When offered $2 million, she refused, calling it a bribe.
Third: The proposed concept to build an apple orchard within the plan for open space. Open space is one thing—but an apple orchard?
The key to the success of this project will be based on improvements to the roadway and MBTA. If there is a willingness by those involved in the decision making to improve on the safety, ease and convenience by people traveling within this region, I believe it can work.
The site at Assembly has been one of the greatest challenges our city has had to face. I think the mayor's committment and willingness to make this an inclusive center for all is admirable, but not so sure others are in line with his idealistic, long term goals.
History and vision of the project:
Recent Globe article "Assembly Square Development is taking shape", which provides details of what is being built at the site: