Monday, June 24, 2024

A rendering of a Gilman Square space proposed by Somerville in 2014. (Image: Gilman Square Station Area Plan)

When you stand at Gilman Square Station on the MBTA’s green line you will be drawn to the photos of a prosperous commercial center of Somerville in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, you will also look around and see how this commercial center was mostly demolished and has since been largely neglected in terms of development. What most people don’t realize is that the only thing holding the area back from being a thriving 15-minute walkable community again is its largest property owner, city government. 

The city’s director of economic development will provide a status update on the site at a 6 p.m. Nov. 15 hearing of the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee. Residents expect to hear of more delays and plans to use the site as a staff parking lot and for winter snow storage. This is city planning at its worst! What is also lost for our community is the approximately $350,000 per year in property taxes that this site would have generated. As a result, residents are rallying to persuade the city to finally take action to implement long-standing, previously approved development plans in Gilman Square. 

The massive and unsightly gravel lot that was once the Homans Foods building was bought by the city and demolished to provide a contractor lay-down area for the green line extension project. The city also owns a triangle park parcel considered part of this development. More than a decade of planning went toward this parcel, including a published Station Area Plan (2014), a 15 percent streetscape design and a building massing and preferred layout out study (both 2021). The culmination of years of meetings to “Bring the Square back to Gilman” was going to begin implementation two years ago with the issuance of a request for proposals so developers could bid on the station area plan for the site. This was halted when the city decided to change tactics to an urban renewal process, using eminent domain to take the adjacent site of a Mobil Gas station. That property has been up for sale multiple times over the past five years.

Getting the city to implement the Station Area Plan has been the overarching challenge for the community. Years of delay tactics, new “hurdles” and “other priorities” have been the consistent response from the city. 

There are five private developments in various stages of planning in immediately adjacent parcels. These developments have the potential for 300-plus housing units and five to 10 active ground-floor retail spaces. None of these developers will move forward with investments while there is risk the city will not commit to the Station Area Plan formalized back in 2014. They await definitive movement from the city. Failure to do so, starting with finally issuing the RFP to develop the Homans site, will mean no vibrant urban center in Gilman Square. 

Gilman Square could represent a tremendous amount of economic development for a small neighborhood. It is probably what the state anticipated as it invested billions of taxpayer dollars into Somerville to bring the green line extension through these neighborhoods. 

The residents of Gilman Square (regardless of political affiliation, demographics, status as an owner or renter or amount of time living or working here) have banded together in support of the development. This is a rarity! It’s common to hear in the news about neighborhoods fighting development and criticizing building heights – this community has done the opposite. Gilman Square residents petitioned to upzone properties to allow more housing and encourage development. We have developed conceptual plans for an amazing neighborhood to help the planners identify a vision based on community-sourced goals. Further, we have been and continue to advocate for Somerville to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to sustainable and climate-resilient development in our city.

The Gilman Square residents ask the Somerville Community to rally at the Homans site at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 15 and march to City Hall to stand with us as we call for the issuance of the RFP. Let’s show the city that our goals are also your goals. 

More housing means more affordable units. A complete civic center means more space for local businesses, more economic opportunity, job creation and a better tax base for enhancement of city services. Street safety, accessibility, completion of the bike infrastructure and more are waiting on this development. All of this will provide a more complete, sustainable and safer Somerville for all.

Somerville is supposed to be a leader in our state. We should be a model for all other MBTA communities as we focus on transit-oriented development. We can do better than this. We need the city to issue a RFP now!

Matthew Carlino and Scott Farrell, Gilman Square, Somerville