Thursday, July 18, 2024

A rendering of Somerville’s Gilman Square in 1906. (Photo: interactivesomerville via Flickr)

It’s easy to think that Somerville is full. We’re packed to the gills – almost every two-family or triple-decker is filled with about a dozen roommates. There’s simply no more room.

It’s true: Somerville is the most densely populated city in New England. We eat Boston’s lunch when it comes to how many people are packed into every nook and cranny in the city. Every neighborhood feels full to bursting.

But I like to think of it as a sign of success – that our city is so pleasant and funky and walkable, that it has so many interesting shops and restaurants, not to mention our seven MBTA stations that provide car-free access to jobs and institutions and opportunities. People can’t help but want to live here.

Our city is truly special, and people recognize that. The problem is that there aren’t enough rooms to fit everyone in. That starts to push prices up, so only those with six-figure incomes (or six roommates) can afford to live here.

The solution is to add more supply, to make it possible for more people to live in our best-suited places with amenities (think: restaurants, shops, transit connections, bike trails), in subsidized and market-rate homes.

We’re not quite full, and if you’ve ever stopped and stared at Davis, Magoun, Gilman and Ball squares, you’ll notice that there’s plenty of room to build up. Looking at old photos, it seems like most used to be more lively and developed a century ago.

We have two simple ways to make more room(s) in Somerville’s squares: We could get the planning department to pull out their purple crayon and color in the less-developed squares with the same deep-hued purple (allowing for midsized buildings) on the zoning map that we’ve used for Union, letting builders construct mixed-use apartment buildings up to five stories in the general area. One in five of all of these new homes would be offered as affordable, per city regulations.

Or, we could go the Boston route, following its Squares + Streets initiative: compact, nine-month planning efforts that ask for community input on how and what development in busy streets and near transit stations should look like, leading at the end of the process to zoning that lets apartments get built.

Both ideas increase the number of people who can enjoy what makes Somerville so special in places that are suitable to absorb that growth. Both are simple solutions that can help us increase housing supply and ensure affordability for the future.

Both keep us from squandering our squares.

Noah Harper

The writer is an urban planner living in Somerville’s Ward 6.