Assembly Station Opens Amidst Accelerating Growth in Somerville

Don Briggs of Federal Realty, Dr. Scott, Curtatone, and Patrick cut the orange tape to symbolically open the station.

The MBTA's first new station in 27 years opened this Tuesday at the start of service with little fanfare. Of course, no grand opening isn't without its ribbon cutting ceremonly, which followed that afternoon with Governor Patrick, Somerville Mayor Curtatone, MassDOT Secretary Davey, and MBTA GM Scott.

Assembly Station on the Orange Line is located in Somerville on the site of a former Ford assembly plant. Somerville is hoping to grow its available housing stock to keep up with booming housing demand and especially the demand induced by the introduction of this and 6 new stations over the next 5 years.

A panorama of the area awaiting development around the unfinished Assembly station entrance with Wig Zamore of the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee and chair of the Union Square Civic Advisory Committee.

Accelerated growth in housing construction will improve supply in a region that has had sluggish growth for decades and is experiencing low rental availability, bidding wars, and sky high rents. Construction of enough housing to closely match latent and growing demand will help in turn help keep housing affordable without imposing new and prohibitive affordability requirements on development.

Somerville further wants to leverage its new station to the point that Curtatone has suggested taking adjacent low density properties, including the Assembly Square Mall, by eminent domain to make sure much needed dense development actually happens.

The station is effectively free tax revenue for the city since its nearly $30 million price tag was entirely paid for by a federal ARRA grant and FRIT, the developer building the nearby Assembly Row complex. It is estimated adjacent developments will bring in an additional $30 million in annual tax revenue.

Exposed concrete pylons await the finishing touch of aluminum casing.

Unfortunately, the station itself isn't quite done yet. The MBTA will still need to shut down Orange Line service over the coming weeks to complete work that cannot otherwise be done with passengers walking through the station.

Now that the station is open, it will add new foot traffic to the Orange Line, both from commuters in the nearby development and people traveling to shop, work, and play in the new neighbourhood. The pilot cars for the new Orange Line fleet should arrive in 2017 and full delivery will begin in 2018. On top of the full replacement of the fleet is an additional 32 cars or just over five 6-car trains. The MBTA will have more trains to improve the reliability and frequency of Orange Line trains just in time for the full build-out of the second phase of development next to the station. The actual bids will be awarded shortly now that MassDOT has wrapped up its review of the as yet undisclosed bidders for the contract.

Planning Like It's 1999

Of course, not all cities that have gained Orange Line stations have jumped on the opportunity of a new station. Just up the line is Malden Center, which opened in 1975 and since then has unfortunately not seen the same level of coordinated development and rejuvination of the area as is happening across the river in Somerville, even as residents wax nostalgic of a bustling downtown Malden.

Malden Center circa 1970 [Source: Globe File Photo]

Malden Center circa 1970 [Source: Globe File Photo]

Weekday boardings hit just over 12,500 passengers daily, which makes it the 13th most used station in the system according to the MBTA's 2014 edition of their 'Blue Book' [PDF] of system stats. Not bad, for the 188 parking spaces owned by the MBTA nearby; meanwhile, Wellington station sees 40% fewer boardings than Malden Center and there are over 1,500 parking spaces, not including the 950-space garage next door.

These numbers are impressive, but the volume of boardings doesn't directly correlate with a strong downtown and well-utilised land near the station. Much of the area near the station is still zoned for industrial use and suffers from underutilisation as significant tracts of land sit as parking craters, low density industry, or abandoned property.

The surface lots and major parking structures within walking distance of the Malden Center station largely isolates downtown from the rest of Malden's residential fabric.

Malden did recently update their master plan in 2010 [PDF] with MAPC to envision a path ahead for the town. That master plan included recommendations for revitalising their downtown, but much of the zoning remains the same and still allows pedestrian unfriendly industrial uses in an area that is proximate to the station and the very downtown they are trying to redevelop. A subsequent project called Plan Downtown Malden [PDF] completed in 2013 by students of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also in coordination with MAPC, echoes earlier advice of turning at least some of this into a Chapter 40R district for more 'intense' development.

However, even with the increased popularity of car sharing services like Zipcar, which have been shown to reduce the need for car ownership in some cases as much as 50%, they still suggest a 1:1 ratio of housing to parking:

...These districts might yield 700 new housing units if built out at a density of 40 units per acre.

A density of 40 units per acre is highly feasible in the recommended locations. With a four-story height limit and a floor area ratio limit of 2.0, buildings covering half of a one-acre parcel might yield 40 units and 17,000 square feet of retail space, with room left over for 40 surface parking spaces and 9,000 square feet of open space.

40 units per acre looks something like this [PDF] and leaves a lot of room for on-site parking. But is surface parking and congestion the 'character' Malden wants to build or preserve? Later on in the master plan, they note that it's actually the high rises that are to blame for the degradation of downtown's character:

The overwhelming consensus among master planning participants is that the high-rise development that has occurred through the Residential Incentive Overlay (RIO) district has been detrimental to the character of the downtown. Most participants favor mid-rise rather than high-rise development. The RIO should be eliminated for any parcels where it has not been utilized.

Let alone the fact that many were built with massive parking structures and were ugly utilitarian buildings even for buildings from the 1970s. Many would argue Boston is hardly the city to look at for examples of high rises with distinguished character that even Malden would be proud of, but such examples do exist. High rise development isn't necessary for infill or smart growth development, but it can be instrumental in adding housing at the volumes the region desperately needs.

For those cities open to building strong downtowns and really capturing land and buildings that have been under-valued, such as Malden's city hall and plaza, there's companies like OpportunitySpace who identify and leverage city-owned assets for redevelopment or even recreation. These can be critical gaps in the urban fabric that are part of the equation of enriching the character that Malden seems to be so dearly in search of.

Suffice it to say, little about downtown will change without significantly more density that leverages walkability, car sharing services, and most especially the transit investment that has been around for nearly 35 years. Malden, like many other cities in the region with transit service, must eschew the idea that 1:1 surface parking is necessary for people who will live next to a station that is less than 20 minutes away from the heart of downtown Boston. Otherwise, the only character Malden will be preserving is its traffic and parking craters.

Note: The new Assembly Row development isn't too much better in this regard with all the parking that has already been built and up to 2,500 more to come [p136 - PDF]  with the second phase of development. Much of this has been and will be built into parking structures, but nevertheless will either contribute significantly to local traffic because it will encourage people to drive to Assembly Square or sit mostly vacant.