Davis Square braces for pair of redevelopments, shaking up a plaza, Elm Street and their retailers
Signs have begun to go up in Somerville’s Davis Square Plaza from businesses leaving to make way for redevelopment, though the businesses don’t know where they’re going and the city doesn’t know when construction will start.
Nor is the timeline known for a second project just down the block on Elm Street. But the square is set to see construction that could uproot more than a dozen businesses, from a pawn shop and doctor’s office to restaurants, a bakery and bubble tea shop.
LBC Boutique, a pawn shop at 260 Elm St., recently put up a sign saying it will be moving, although its next location isn’t known. Davis Square Family Practice, a doctor’s office at the same address, has told patients it intends to leave, and the announced departures are drawing attention from residents. The second story of a plaza building is already vacated, with plywood boards over windows.
Both are in the Davis Square Plaza, a broad alley between the main drag of Elm Street and the quieter Herbert Street, which provides access from a city-owned public parking lot. The 120,000-square-foot redevelopment project there is known as 7th Spoke – named for being the next segment in the square’s six-street intersection – and is a project of Asana Partners, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based real estate investment firm. Asana also owns 240 Elm St., the Davis Square building that holds the bfresh grocery store.
Construction is expected in two phases, focusing first on the west side of the plaza by remaking the 58 Day St. building with the post office at its base, as well as the 260 Elm St. “connector” building. In Phase 2, there will be a reimagined plaza that could be a space for art, seasonal events or a marketplace, and – to its east – a new four-story building with retail on the ground floor and 60,000 square feet of lab and office spaces above. Asana executives said the new square footage could bring an additional 490 jobs into the community.
Plans call for up to 14 total retail spaces, with an average size of about 1,600 square feet. The 7,500-square-foot plaza would stay the same size.
The Asana project
Construction is expected to take roughly 14 months that “in an ideal world” would begin late in 2022, said Welch Liles, managing director at Asana, during a Nov. 9 meeting. “In construction, there are times that there’s some noise and dust and potential for road closures. But it will be important for us to create a detailed logistics plan and schedule to help minimize that impact,” Liles said. Elm and Day streets in particular are “thoroughfares that cannot afford any significant constriction during the construction process.”
As to the affected businesses, the post office is expected to stay in its location and be open during construction, though it will come out of the process smaller and shifted to the corner, Liles said. The Japanese restaurant Sugidama Soba & Izakaya is expected to move to Day Street.
“We are working with several of the existing tenants to relocate back into the project or to find them homes that are nearby in the neighborhood or in Davis Square,” Liles said. The company is working to put the current tenants back “in a very affordable environment that’s equal to or lesser than their current rents.” In the plan Asana presented to residents, the office or life-sciences tenants on the upper floors will be leased at market rates that will subsidize the retail and small businesses to maintain an active ground-floor presence.
It’s a different approach than the company is perceived as taking in Harvard Square since a $108 million purchase of retail properties in December 2017. There small, independent businesses have been forced out by rent increases that one 18-year business owner called “unsustainable.” When Asana bought its Brattle Street buildings, 11 of its ground-floor storefronts housed locally owned businesses, wrote The Harvard Crimson in 2020, and less than three years later, five were shuttered or moved “and all but one of them have been replaced by national chains.”
The Scape project
Scape North America’s project along Elm Street and extending along Grove Street calls for construction of a four-story building – originally intended to be residential but now with retail on the ground floor and lab and office spaces on upper stories. Scape, a London-based real estate owner, operator and developer, arrived in Boston in 2018 with plans for $1 billion in local investment; in July 2019, it signed a $10 million, 99-year ground lease for the Davis Square property, according to the Boston Business Journal.
The plans leave the fate of the businesses Dragon Pizza, Caramel patisserie, Kung Fu Tea, McKinnon’s Meat Market, When Pigs Fly bakery, Sligo Pub and Martsa on Elm restaurant unknown, though Scape said last year that The Burren Irish pub would not only be kept on as an anchor but be able to stay open during construction.
During an Aug. 25 meeting, representatives of Scape said construction would take 18 to 24 months, but could not give an expected start date. When asked if work might start in 2022, the company’s North America chief executive, Andrew Flynn, said he could not “anticipate or speculate how far out it will be. But I think we consider ourselves in in the first inning of this journey with eight or nine more innings to go.”
Neither Scape nor Asana responded immediately to questions Friday if there were updates to construction schedules. Tom Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development, said start dates were unknown.
Elm Street businesses
Like Asana, Scape promised to minimize the impact of construction on the square and its businesses. “We certainly are very mindful of the impact construction has. We always want to prepare a detailed construction management plan that mitigates and minimizes disruption, both in terms of duration and in scope,” Flynn said.
It also said it was working with the businesses between The Burren and Grove Street to find them new locations, and potentially welcome them back after their run-down spaces are refreshed.
Those businesses will face challenges financially, said Galligani, and for some, having their present location has been critical to their successes.
It was also possible that some may move to a “swing space” only to find that they prefer the new spot and do not want to come back, he said.
“Do I think that all of those businesses will return? I think that’s unlikely,” Galligani said. “There’s too many variables. All we can do is support them in a way that makes sense.” He added that the city may be able to intervene through its site finder service, which helps businesses that are expanding, coming into the city for the first time or looking for a new location by searching a commercial real estate database and reaching out to property owners. “We go talk to that landlord and find out what the story is, so that we can match people.”
Help from the city
Businesses moving offsite from Asana’s plaza and trying to come back will be similarly supported, Galligani said, as well as those trying to find a different “landing spot,” hopefully in Davis Square.
The Boston Tattoo Co. was one business worried about “losing what was a very successful location for them. We want to see them stay too, so we’ve been working with the landlord and with them, trying to figure out what the permitting steps are. The idea is that they may move across the plaza,” Galligani said. Establishments such as Starbucks may not “require hand holding,” and it is likely that the landlords will want them to stay and will “try to work something out.” Other tenants may not want to be in a construction zone and may choose to leave permanently. The landlord continues to negotiate with tenants, he said.
“It’s a tricky situation,” Galligani said. “Some of these tenants would like to grow even bigger. Some of them want to shrink. Does that match up with what the landlord needs and wants, in terms of creating the environment that they want to create? It’s a lot of delicate negotiations that are taking place, and we’re trying to support them, so that all of these businesses have a place to land, hopefully as close as possible to where they are right now.”
Possibilities at the plaza
Asana describes the possibilities for the plaza in glowing terms – as an additional gathering space for Davis Square that is essentially public but privately maintained, and an improvement over a space Liles called “really underwhelming and underutilized.”
Somerville city councilor Lance Davis said the small businesses of the square are part of what makes the area attractive. But he was enthusiastic about the possibilities at the plaza.
“The nice thing about this proposal is it accomplishes a number of things that folks have been talking about for a long time, the principle of which is ensuring that plaza remains an open space,” Davis said. “It also will bring additional daytime activity.”
Data collected over the years shows there’s “a good bit of traffic in the morning, significant traffic in the evening and not a whole lot during the day,” Davis said. Asana’s plan could mean a more consistent flow of people, which “would be a good thing.”