“T station plan may end fight over mall”
$25m in bill could boost development at Assembly Square
Twenty-five million dollars set aside for a new MBTA Orange Line station at Assembly Square in Somerville, tucked into the latest transportation funding bill in Washington, could resolve one of Massachusetts’ longest-running development battles.
Somerville’s political squabbles over redevelopment of the nearly defunct Assembly Square Mall and the rest of a 140-acre site — bounded by Interstate 93, the Mystic River, and a rail corridor — have been going on for years.
But a large chunk of the location changed hands last spring, and the new owner’s plans for a mix of uses got a big potential boost this week, when prospects improved for the creation of an adjacent MBTA stop, halfway between Sullivan Square and Wellington Station.
”We’re very excited,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. ”A T stop is the most critical piece to unlocking the full potential of that site.”
Earlier this year, Federal Realty Investment Trust of Rockville, Md., bought the mall, as well as rights to develop adjacent underused land, for about $64 million.
Taurus New England Investments Corp. of Boston and Gravestar Inc. of Cambridge had spent six years working with city officials to get the site rezoned and permitted for retail, office, and residential use.
Now, Federal Realty is refurbishing the mall, bringing in tenants like Christmas Tree Shops. But longtime critics of proposals for retail use of the rest of the area — especially by big-box stores like Ikea, which controls a block adjacent to the mall — say more shoppers would just bring more cars and congestion to already stuffed roads like Route 28.
In 2004, the City of Somerville signed an agreement with the land’s owners requiring them to build a mixed-used neighborhood near the mall. But Bill Shelton, former president of the activist Mystic Valley Task Force, and others fear what is built on a former MBTA site nearest the new station will be too heavily weighted with retail use.
The task force supports transit-related urban development and has filed suits against plans for suburban-style retail uses. Shelton and others want residences and a large dose of office space at Assembly Square, even though today’s commercial leasing market is ailing and showing no signs of quick recovery. Without that, they say, there won’t be enough foot traffic to support a T stop.
Even US Representative Michael E. Capuano, the Democratic congressman who along with the Commonwealth’s US senators was responsible for getting Congress to earmark the funds for a T station, was cautious yesterday.
”This does not guarantee funding,” said Capuano, a former Somerville mayor. ”If the players muddle along as they’ve done for years now, this money will be lost.” Congress would have to take further action before the authorized money could actually be spent.
Curtatone said the total cost for the station would be $40 million to $50 million.
Capuano said developers, city officials, and groups such as the task force must cooperate to come up with a plan acceptable to all.
A Federal Realty spokesman could not be reached yesterday. But a spokeswoman for former co-owner Gravestar, Natasha Perez, called the money for a new station good news. ”This is an exciting opportunity for Somerville and is really going to make Assembly Square pop,” she said.
The MBTA has not had a new Orange Line station high on its list of capital projects. ”Only recently did the MBTA become aware of this earmark,” said Joe Pesaturo, the T’s spokesman.
Stephen V. Mackey, president of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, said putting a station at Assembly Square, about a half mile from stations to the north and south, would make spacing of stations on the line consistent with other urban transit stretches. ”It opens up the opportunity for nearly a billion dollars of urban, transit-oriented development,” he said.
Curtatone said Federal Realty has said it plans to create a new neighborhood, with small block sizes, housing and office uses, boutique-style and other retail shops, cafes, and restaurants.
”They build urban villages,” Curtatone said. ”That’s why they bought the site, that’s why they paid so much for it, and they made clear the importance of having an Orange Line stop there.”