The lessons behind Somerville’s new T stop

‘We can’t sprawl our way to success’

On Tuesday I had the privilege of cutting the ribbon on the first new MBTA rail station to open in 27 years. Thanks to the new Orange Line T stop in Assembly Square, officially called Assembly Station, we’re building more than 2 million square feet of office space, a half-million square feet of retail space, and 2,100 new housing units. Ultimately the jobs will count in the tens of thousands and the businesses there will pump billions of dollars each year through the Massachusetts economy. One T station unlocked all of that.

Hopefully it marks the start of a new era where we use transportation to reinvigorate the Massachusetts economy. The lesson of Assembly Square couldn’t be more clear: Massachusetts is full of untapped economic potential. Assembly Square has been sitting next to a T line for three decades, but back in the 1980s no one much considered building a station there because it was a crumbling industrial area. The Ford plant, which gave the area its name, closed in 1958. Its successor at that site, the First National supermarket distribution center, went dark in 1976. It was a monument to post-industrial urban blight. Of course the T bypassed it. Why would anyone have wanted to stop?

Yet beneath the decrepit exterior it always had location going for it. Downtown Boston is 2.5 miles away, it boasts an I-93 exit, and it’s situated on the banks of the Mystic River. All it needed was to be cleaned up and developed, and suddenly you have yourself a prime piece of urban real estate. To a degree it’s a lot like the old Sears mail order warehouse in Boston, which kicked off the recent Fenway building boom when it was converted into the Landmark Center. The area was begging for a new life.

Projects like these demonstrate why we need to get away from the frontier concept of economic expansion that doesn’t really work in the 21st century and certainly doesn’t apply to Massachusetts. We can’t sprawl our way to success. Massachusetts doesn’t have the geography for it. If we try to push all of our new development outward from our population centers, we’ll run into other states. Where our economy will rise and fall is our ability to design smart cities and surrounding suburbs where commerce, quality of life, and ease of access fit together seamlessly. That’s our sweet spot.

What we’re looking at is inward expansion, revitalizing the locations like Assembly Square that got bypassed by previous generations. To do that in some cases we need to rethink our transportation system. We must reconnect with the places in our Commonwealth that have been disconnected. All of the development in Assembly Square never would have materialized without the new T station. If the only way in or out of the area would have been by car, it would have created gridlock. Unwittingly, we had built a place that couldn’t function properly unless we made changes. Assembly Station was the key to fixing that.

It should be noted that it took uncommon political commitment to make this happen. Gov. Deval Patrick championed this project because he saw the potential to invest in Massachusetts. He recognized that the MBTA has to evolve if we expect our economy to evolve. We’re seeing the rebirth of our public transit system because we have a governor who made it happen. Also, the entire Assembly Square revitalization got started thanks to $25 million from the federal government that came as part of the 2009 stimulus package.

More new T stations will open in Somerville in the coming years with the Green Line extension. More jobs and economic expansion will follow. That will happen largely because it makes sense to extend greater Boston’s main transit system into the most densely populated city in New England. It also will happen because our city government changed the zoning around the new T stations in order to seize the opportunity presented by new transit options. We want to make sure we get bang for our buck when it comes to taxpayer investment. That requires systems thinking. New transportation by itself is not a miracle cure for urban blight. Zoning, permitting, street configurations, active transport options, parks, schools, policing, trees, public art, public engagement – all of those things tend to be part of the solution.

Housing is another key component. Greater Boston needs another 435,000 units of housing. It is absurd how out of whack our housing supply is with demand. New housing and new transportation should go hand-in-hand, connecting people to jobs, education, and health care. On top of that, housing is a critical element to building successful and sustainable new commerce centers. Places where the streets roll up at 5 p.m. do not measure up to active, vital communities where people live, work, play, and raise their families.

Our future transportation projects all should come with a big picture attached. That involves a lot of work, but it’s work we must expedite. We need to get in and out of our cities more efficiently. We need to get from city to city more quickly. We need to do a better job of linking air and rail transport. If Massachusetts in 2050 looks largely like it did in 1990, if we’re still getting around in the latter 21st century the same we did in the latter 20th century, then we’re doing it wrong.

We opened one new T station on Tuesday and that’s a big deal because we’ve gone more than a quarter century since the last time we opened one.

Meet the Author

Having been involved in the effort to open Assembly Station I have that top-of-Mount-Everest feeling, but the reality is, when it comes to transportation upgrades in Massachusetts, we’re still in the foothills.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.