A brief history of redevelopment in Davis Square

This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal

For the past few years, Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD) have been working on plans to redevelop Union Square and Davis Square, both popular destinations in the city.

But Davis Square is no stranger to redevelopment efforts. Since the 1900s, Davis Square has undergone major transformations, especially with the Red Line Extension in the 1980s.

The OSPCD held the first of a series of meetings on Feb. 13 to discuss past redevelopment efforts and to survey a group of community members. Melissa Woods from the OSPCD said the surveys would help the team gather feedback in regards to what community members discuss from the city planning.

“How will things change in the future?” asked Woods. “What can we expect? … We’re building the process going forward.”

Here is brief timeline of recent efforts in Davis Square, starting in the 1980s:

1982: Davis Square Action Plan

The 1982 Davis Square Action Plan called for a better design of the plaza, streetscape improvements, the Red Line extension, etc.

“The City of Somerville and the Chamber of Commerce and residents were involved [in the plan],” said Woods. “It was around the Red Line coming to Davis Square.”

1984: Red Line Extension comes to Davis

The RLX was finished.

1990: Harvard Vanguard opens

Harvard Vanguard built a medical center at 40 Holland St., drawing lots of outside attention.

2009-2010: SomerVision

In 2009, the City of Somerville started working on their citywide comprehensive plan, SomerVision. The plan outlines changes and goals to be accomplished by the year 2030.

Though the goals of SomerVision are for the entire city, there does have to be specific planning for each neighborhood.

“Since completing SomerVision, the City has been able to do neighborhood planning on the Lowell Street station area, Gilman Square, Winter Hill, [and] Union Square,” said Woods. “Davis Square is now in that process.”

May-November 2013: Crowdsourcing, visioning, and a three-day charrette

When Somerville By Design was relaunched, the team started community outreach programs within the Davis Square area to see what changes people expected and wanted.

In September they hosted a design charrette, which brought together, community members, consultants, and transportation experts.

The City of Somerville did similar outreach programs within other areas, like Winter Hill. There, explained Woods, consultants addressed concerns about economic development and grocery store development. In other neighborhoods, concerns could be different.

“We brought in a team of consultants [to Davis Square] that we thought would work best and address community concerns,” explained Woods.

2014-2015: Plan elements

The City of Somerville started outlining plan elements after discussions with the community, including more local grocery stores, highlighting favorite spots in Davis Square, meeting places, etc.

Sort of narrowed down the topics that we were addressing – really just a summary but not really any sort of outreach or events that were going on

May 2015: Public Space Public Life Study

The study acted as a pilot for ideas to gather feedback and measure how people use new and modified spaces.

Gehl Architects helped conduct a citywide study and suggested that Somerville run pilot programs.

“We looked at how people were using our squares and parks and other public spaces,” said Woods.

In 2016, the city brought back Gehl and asked for help with Davis Square.

June 2016: Public Realm Pilot

One of the pilot programs the city tried, said Woods, was placing movable adirondack chairs in Seven Hills Park.

The city also closed the left turn lane from Highland to Elm St. for one weekend and set up bistro tables and chairs.

The pilots are helpful, said Woods, because the city can test out ideas without allocating a large sum of money to the projects

February-May 2017: Assessing neighborhood character

This year Somerville By Design will be hosting a series of five meetings to discuss the character of Davis Square and how people want to preserve it.

Woods said throughout their studies, they found Davis Square was one of the most popular destinations in the city.

February 2017: Place types in Davis Square

Place types, explained Woods, are a good way to get people on the same page about what they want to see in their neighborhood.

“This is what the planning staff thinks,” said Woods. “[Davis Square] isn’t just one place type.”

After gathering people’s feedback, said Woods, the square seems to encompass three categories:

– Local: a mixed-use district with access to regional settings; serves local retail community; increased high-density housing

– Urban: high frequency access to all modes of transit

– Neighborhood: adding to the number of neighborhood services and shopping

“This [process] is really just to get the idea of where we are today and where we want to be in the future,” said Woods.

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