Thursday, July 18, 2024

Somerville’s director of planning, preservation and zoning, Sarah Lewis, discusses a Davis Square Commercial Area Plan at a meeting Tuesday. (Photo: Austin Clementi)

As Somerville reimagines Davis Square – again – two sprawling projects affecting block-sized parcels are on hold. The uncertain future posed by those lab developments was just one flashpoint of discussion, along with pedestrianization and accessibility issues, as city planners introduced Davis Square residents to a new Davis Square Commercial Area Plan on Tuesday.

A follow-up to the 2019 Davis Square Neighborhood Plan, the updated version narrows its focus to the “commercial core” of the neighborhood.

Community members packed a basement room – and spilled out into the hall – at the Somerville Public Library’s West Branch to hear and discuss the plan. Director of Planning, Preservation and Zoning Sarah Lewis emphasized that the current version was a draft, and the meeting largely consisted of getting feedback from the community. Many attendees had already read the proposal.

Nearly two years ago, businesses in Davis Square Plaza – the alleyway where the restaurant Sugidama, a doctor and a pawn shop once operated – began to make plans to either move or close, responding to a proposed 120,000-square-foot lab redevelopment there called 7th Spoke by Asana Partners of Charlotte, North Carolina. Down the street, Scape, a London-based real estate owner, operator and developer, had planned another biotech building, leading to the closing of Sligo Pub and a patisserie and endangering several other shops.

An economic downturn in biotech lab buildings is delaying construction on these projects, leaving these retail spaces empty. During a Nov. 23 meeting of the City Council, chief assessor Francis Golden noted that low tenancy rates in lab buildings could drive these projects to fail – though at the Tuesday meeting, Lewis said the developers in Davis Square were just choosing not to develop yet. “The property owners are waiting to develop to see what happens, how the market comes back,” she said.

Some of the plan continues to rely on revitalization through privately owned public spaces – “pops” such as Asana’s proposed civic space replacing Davis Square Plaza. Lewis argued that pushing the cost of building and maintaining public spaces onto large developers would lead to higher-quality materials and better maintenance.

But because these areas are private property, Lewis said, no estimate could be given on when the developers might begin construction.

Some residents and business owners took issue. “Your lab space two years ago was a great idea. You wiped out the alleyway. Now we’re all gone,” one business owner said. “Maybe we should learn from our mistakes as far as not being so in a hurry to do things that sound great now but really don’t make sense.” His comments were met with some applause.

Neither Scape nor Asana had representatives at the meeting. Asana was contacted for comment recently but did not reply.

The plan highlights what would be a major policy shift in Somerville to combat this displacement: commercial rent stabilization. Though the document acknowledges that rent stabilization for businesses is legally tricky, there are models in commercial “rent management” to look to in California and Oregon. It points to Davis Square as a good location for a test.

Lewis also noted that the economic development team may try to steer future developers toward more environmentally focused tech similar to the expansion of Greentown Labs, which Lewis described as a “hub” for it in the Boston area.

“If we’re getting lab pressures in our commercial core, then perhaps [green tech] is something that the economic development team can steer the company toward,” Lewis said.

Pedestrianizing Elm Street

Closing Elm Street to car traffic was a part of the 2019 document that met with pushback. “Previously, we talked about the pedestrianization of Elm street. It was deemed a little bold. But then Covid distancing requirements required outdoor dining to help support our local restaurants and businesses,” Lewis said. “What was a far-fetched idea all of a sudden didn’t seem quite so outlandish.”

Complete pedestrianization would be complicated or impossible, Lewis admitted. Banning vehicles from the street would require support from the MBTA, whose buses run down Elm Street, and to putting two-way traffic on Highland Avenue.

Some community members remained skeptical, citing the difficulty emergency vehicles would have getting through the street, but many liked the plan, pointing to cities such as New York, which has pedestrianized streets, and the Netherlands, which has cut down on car-oriented infrastructure significantly in recent years.

“I don’t think that it’s a crazy idea. It’s been done around the world. Pedestrianization projects are wildly successful,” one commenter said. As to concerns about emergency vehicles, “pedestrians can get out of the way faster than cars can.”

Continuing the community path through the square was another major concern voiced by residents. Lewis noted that the MBTA station on Holland Street and the MBTA’s Davis Square busway partially blocked the community path, meaning the state would need to be consulted.

The plan also calls for clearer intersection pathfinding, such as with sidewalk signs or interactive maps, to allow users of all modes of transportation – especially pedestrians and bikes – safe passage through the square.

The plan additionally calls for use of measures to discourage vehicle use and parking – such as demand-based parking rates – and encouraging the use of electric vehicles. While allocating current parking spaces to other uses, the plan encourages more dedicated curb spaces for commercial loading and unloading to prevent gridlock.

Accessibility

Some said the current plan had accessibility issues. Its use of brick is a problem for people in wheelchairs, with walkers or canes or who are blind, one resident said.

The brick was supposed to be “decorative, reminiscent of the character of the neighborhood, without letting it go completely and without creating more ADA problems and mobility issues,” Lewis said. Walkways would be smooth and 5 feet wide.

Since several of the points in the plan – and Scape’s development – call for converting parking lots, one commenter noted that accessible spaces still needed to be considered.

“I would love to see that very clearly illustrated in the plan. So we know that even though Elm street might be closed to traffic, there are parking spaces immediately abutting it that would be good for people,” the commenter said. “The EV parking that the city has installed so far is not handicapped accessible.”