IKEA’s Somerville Withdrawal Creates Opportunity and Risk

An artist's rendition of what Assembly Square will look like when Federal Realty Investment Trust’s work is done.


I’ve never met an IKEA representative I didn’t like. In negotiations over their Somerville property they were honorable, and as companions they were enjoyable. They willingly complied with every regulatory requirement thrust upon them. And even after city and state approval of their plans, they made adjustments to accommodate the community path. I even liked their attorneys.

But despite their many virtues, I’m glad they won’t be building a store in Somerville. Large-format — perhaps better known as big box — stores don’t belong in New England’s densest city, and especially not on the best large-scale mixed-use development site remaining in Greater Boston.

Assembly Square bestrides $7 billion worth of transportation infrastructure—Massachusetts’ most travelled highway, the Orange Line, three commuter rails, Routes 28 and 38, and the Mystic River.

The distance from its northernmost to southernmost points is greater than the distance from North Station to South Station. It’s bigger than Boston’s financial district.

Wisely developed as an office/R&D-based urban land transformation, it could have produced $30 million per year in net new city tax revenue, 30,000 new jobs, and 30 acres of open space.

In 2000, the Board of Aldermen unanimously endorsed this vision. Then-Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay embraced it as well.
Understandably so. City finances rely heavily on net state aid, which has dropped from $57 million in 2002 to $30 million last year, and our cash reserves are razor thin. We have two working residents for every job, as opposed to Boston’s and Cambridge’s two jobs for every worker. And Somerville has the lowest proportion of open space in the Commonwealth, including cemeteries and paved schoolyards.

But in 2004, the Board of Aldermen and a new mayor approved a zoning amendment designed to allow construction of Assembly Square Marketplace. Massachusetts Land Court subsequently found the amendment to be illegal. By then, the Marketplace was already up and running.
The good news is that the Marketplace’s owners, Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT), are far more honorable, effective and collaborative than were their predecessors. The bad news is that it’s still a big-box strip mall.

Big box stores’ large parking lots and low-rise, low-value construction make them the commercial land use that produces the least taxes and fewest jobs per acre. But they generate more car trips than any other use. And they don’t tend to attract high-end office and R&D facilities as neighbors.

Somerville’s Planning Board had previously entitled construction of a 340,000 square-foot IKEA. No other big-box retailer on earth generates more car trips per store than IKEA. So Assembly Square’s potential as Greater Boston’s next coveted business address seemed questionable.
In 2006, representatives from FRIT, IKEA and the Mystic View Task Force (MVTF) negotiated an agreement to settle lawsuits brought by MVTF.

The settlement terms included:

  • A long-term vision that includes 500,000 square feet of R&D and office space
  • Measures to limit auto trips to 50,000 per day—half of what had been initially projected
  • Contributions by FRIT and IKEA of $15 million to construct an Orange Line station, and $150,000 from FRIT for water access improvements
  • Construction by FRIT of pedestrian and bike connections to Ten Hills, East Somerville, and Draw 7 Park
  • Creation of an Assembly Square Public Advisory Committee

The Public Advisory Committee worked closely with FRIT to produce a long-term land-use plan for Assembly Square. The process was lengthy, comprehensive, and mobilized expert urban designers, architects, and sustainability professionals. FRIT covered all of the costs, which were substantial.

I believe that the agreement maximizes Assembly Square’s potential, within the constraints of the Marketplace and what would have been IKEA. Committee members and FRIT officials in no way presume to tell other landowners what to do with their property. Their intent, instead, is to illuminate the value that a coordinated land transformation can create for landowners, our city, the region and future Assembly Square businesses and residents.

FRIT is working to achieve this potential. Its Assembly Row will bring housing, restaurants, comparison shopping, entertainment, a hotel, apartments, a cinema, and other amenities.

Assembly Square Marketplace will remain. But located on the Northwest edge, it won’t bring heavy traffic through the residential and commercial sectors, as IKEA would have at its proposed location.

Long-term plans for Assembly Square from 2009.

IKEA’s withdrawal opens up 16.6 acres of prime land adjacent to the future Orange Line Station. This creates an enormous opportunity for high value development that is integrated into the larger land transformation and thereby increases the Assembly Square’s value overall. On the other hand, IKEA’s withdrawal also creates the risk of incompatible development that would reduce the value and potential of what surrounds it.
All stakeholders should work together to minimize the risk and seize the opportunity. The City of Somerville intends to begin overhauling its zoning ordinance. It should write and ruthlessly enforce Assembly Square zoning that captures the vision and principles of the Public Advisory Committee’s long-term plan.

All parties should collaborate in communicating Assembly Square’s considerable advantages to potential office/R&D developers and tenants. It’s waterfront and the amenity-rich environment that FRIT is creating will be attractive to employees. Its location on Massachusetts’ most traveled highway will make it accessible to many of them.

And each weekday, 1.1 million people board the Orange Line or a line that directly connects to it. Together, they link all seven major research universities with Assembly Square, making the square ripe for brain-powered development.

Meanwhile, there are open positions representing the Board of Aldermen and the mayor on the Assembly Square Public Advisory Committee. People interested in filling them should contact their alderman or the mayor’s office.

William Shelton is a member of the Assembly Square Public Advisory Committee and was on the team that negotiated the settlement agreement with FRIT and IKEA.

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