Thursday, July 18, 2024

Heather Gray, owner of Neighborhood Produce in Somerville’s Ball Square, helps a customer June 1. (Photo: Wei Chen)

Small-business owners say they’ve been underwhelmed by the changes in customers and revenue since new MBTA green line extension stations opened in Somerville.

“The revenue remains the same,” said Mike Moccia, owner of Ball Square Café, just a two-minute walk from one of the five stations that opened Dec. 12, extending from the Lechmere stop in Cambridge to end at College Avenue in Medford. A spur to Union Square preceded them, opening March 21, 2022.

To assess how the new stations are affecting small nearby businesses, we visited each extension stop from early to mid-June, ultimately focusing on areas with the most and closest commerce: Ball Square and Union Square. We interviewed 12 managers, owners and senior staff members representing businesses within a three-minute walk from the stations that were doing business before the GLX stations opened. Topics ranged from foot traffic to the expectation regarding the green line and the cost of rent; the sources quoted in this story capture the major themes from those conversations.

Expectations around the stations have been high, if Somerville real estate prices are a gauge. By way of example, residential rents in June were up 13 percent compared with the period last year before the green line extension stops opened, according to the real estate platform Zumper. On the commercial side, concerns about increasingly high rents were brought up often during the interviews, though some business owners said they had locked in yearslong leases.

Ball Square Station, a part of the MBTA green line extension that reaches to Medford, seen June 1. (Photo: Wei Chen)

Heather Gary, owner of Neighborhood Produce, a grocery store opened in Ball Square in 2021, said the arrival of the nearby station did nothing to change December being “our slowest month.”

“The Ball Square Station was opened in an awkward time,” Gary said. “The holiday was about to come, and there were not many people commuting.”

Commuting question

The long-delayed station openings also coincided with breakdowns and speed restrictions on T service resulting from long periods of systemwide neglect – problems that continue with no end in sight. Business owners say residents using other commuting options could explain the lack of impact from the green line extension stops.

“Not as many customers commute by trains as we think,” said Ivan Mejia, owner of the 25-year old restaurant Sound Bites in Ball Square. “They mainly commute by cars.”

Wichuda Thaion, a server for five years at Ebi Sushi in Union Square, where a station opened three minute’s walk away, agreed: The green line is “convenient but not reliable. Many customers still choose to drive” – to the degree that drivers still complain of a shortage of parking spaces in Union Square, where trains supposedly arrive and depart every six to 12 minutes.

Though some stores have seen growth in orders and customers since the stops opened, no business owner credited that mainly to the green line extension. Neighborhood Produce “has been growing every month since its opening in 2021, which was before the opening of the extension,” Gray said. She does acknowledge seeing an after-work rush: “When 30 people get off the T, about seven or eight people will walk into my store.”

Thaion attributed the growth of Ebi Sushi business to constant promotions and advertisements on social media.

City’s expectations

The green line extension is expected to bring more than 10 million square feet of development – new offices, labs and housing – within a quarter-mile of the stations, said Somerville’s Economic Development Director Thomas Galligani in a July 14 email. There’s now more than 1.5 million square feet of new commercial space and 600 units of housing under construction near new green line stations in Somerville, he said.

“As these buildings fill up with workers and residents,” Galligani said. “We expect the business districts located near the green line stations to see more customers, creating an opportunity for local businesses.”

It’s the city’s impression that there has already been a green line extension bump for businesses. The idea that the GLX hasn’t contributed to shops’ bottom lines “does not track with conversations we are having with local small-business owners,” Galligani said, without specifics.

“But we recognize each small-business owner’s experience is unique and evolving,” Galligani said, and the city is engaging with businesses along the expansion to help “gain a full understanding of its impact on their day-to-day operations.”

Somerville has also committed $2.5 million from federal Covid relief funds to support small business, invited in a research team from Harvard’s Kennedy School and initiated a task force to prevent “small enterprises displacement,” Galligani said.

Although the opening of the GLX may not have met expectations, many small-business owners have faith. “Since the green line is still new, I am still expecting more customers will come with it over time,” said Moccia, of the 16-year-old Ball Square Café.

“A lot of places in Somerville were not accessible before, and now they are. Our business is increasing every month, and we love to see it,” said Gray, of Neighborhood Produce.