Davis Square
Somerville, MA

Research by PPS' Cynthia Nikitin

Brief history/background:

The City of Somerville capitalized on development of the new station, from its earliest planning stages, as a catalyst for revitalizing the Square by promoting new commercial development and sponsoring other physical improvements, while working to maintain its traditional urban character. These public improvements have also catalyzed private reinvestment in the Square’s adjoining residential areas. The success of the redevelopment efforts are largely attributed to close cooperation between the many stakeholders in the process. These stakeholders included the City, local business people and residents, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and numerous Federal and Commonwealth agencies.

Planning Process

Davis Square, once a thriving commercial center, experienced a gradual decline in the post-World War II era. Between 1970 and 1980, the City of Somerville lost 2,000 jobs and the population dropped from 89,000 to 77,000, a 13% decline. Manufacturing, wholesale and retail businesses left the area. According to a planning study completed in 1980, Davis Square suffered from a lack of competitiveness among merchants, traffic congestion, inadequate parking and an increasingly deteriorated physical environment.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, plans to expand the highway system in the Boston area met with stiff protest from community groups and local officials opposed to the massive land-takings required for highway construction. At the same time, Boston-area residents realized that public transportation was more practical than the automobile for commuting within Boston and from its outlying areas. Governor Sargent responded to this opposition in 1970, by signing a moratorium on highway construction within Route 128, a highway that encircles Boston, and setting up the Boston Transportation Planning Review to examine transportation plans for the Boston area.

In 1970, the Cambridge City Council urged the MBTA to seriously consider the extension of the Red Line, originally built in 1912, beyond Harvard Square as an alternative to a proposed highway. The route was to run from Harvard Square north through Cambridge to Arlington, but in 1973, Somerville residents, businesspeople and public officials -- realizing the economic benefits that a train and bus station would bring to their community -- launched a petition and letter writing campaign to the MBTA requesting that the extension be routed through Davis Square. In addition, Somerville was providing 5% of the MBTA’s budget, and without any subway station within its borders, Somerville residents felt that their transit service was unequal to their contribution. In contrast, the town of Arlington, concerned about traffic congestion, opposed the extension of the Red Line into its boundaries and its termination at Arlington Heights. As a result, the Red Line now terminates at Alewife, in North Cambridge.

In 1977, while the Red Line Extension was in the planning stage, the Somerville Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council put together the first Davis Square urban design and business study. That same year, the Davis Square Task Force was formed, composed of local business owners, residents and local officials, to act as a citizens’ advisory committee regarding the revitalization plans and to address a major concern that was dividing the community on the type and extent of development. One faction was pushing for a major redevelopment project that would include the creation of an indoor shopping mall, while many local residents favored minimal change to the neighborhood. The OPCD commissioned outside consultants to study potential land use, including office and retail uses, traffic, parking and other issues. Along with input from the Task Force, the studies resulted in the Davis Square Action Plan, adopted in 1982. The primary goal of the Plan was to use the new Red Line Station as a cornerstone for redevelopment, strengthening Davis Square as a viable shopping district while preserving the residential character of the neighborhood.


The City of Somerville and the Davis Square Task Force initiated many projects to accompany the Red Line extension, using the redevelopment, especially of empty parcels, to build the type of community that they had envisioned:

  • Streetscape improvements with funds from the Federal Highway Administration’s Urban Systems Program, including street reconstruction, sidewalk widening, new lighting, fences and planting.
  • The renovation of Kenney Park at the corner of Grove Street and Highland Ave.
  • Storefront and facade improvements with a grant from the city’s Community Development Block Grant entitlement. With the grant, the city paid for one-half of the facade work on eligible properties and provided design assistance through the OPCD landmark constitutional decision allowing the removal of all billboards from Davis Square, initially, and then from the City of Boston as a whole. In 1995, a local bank established its own Storefront Improvement Program, available to Davis Square businesses.
  • Designation of Davis Square as a Commercial Area Revitalization District (CARD) which allowed major commercial developments to use Industrial Revenue (IRB) financing through the Massachusetts Industrial Finance (MIFA). With IRB financing, the owners of the Errico building were able to renovate 6,000 square feet of retail and office space and add 12,000 square feet of new space.
  • The construction of additional public parking, in small lots, throughout the Davis Square area.
  • The construction of the Ciampa Manor Elderly Housing development on College Avenue. (Local residents favored residential over commercial development at this prime site, a gateway to Davis Square.)
  • Planning and site development for the Buena Vista project, a $10 million, 100,000 square foot office and retail complex, that includes a public parking structure. An Urban Development Action Grant provided $1.7 million toward the initial development costs. This project was completed in 1991.

Private development efforts included the renovation of former manufacturing buildings and department stores in the Davis Square area to provide additional office and retail space. A locally owned, community-oriented bank was encouraged to construct a new building in the area and the old telephone building was converted into a drug and convenience store.

A bicycle path connects Davis Square to the towns of Arlington and Lexington, and bus stops, used by the MBTA and the Tufts University van service, connect local residents to the subway line. The subway station is also within walking distance of the large Alewife station parking garage. The streetscape improvements surrounding the Davis Square Station were designed to enhance the pedestrian access to the station and local businesses, and to slow traffic, while giving the commercial area a more coherent appearance.

The MBTA developed the plaza linking the two station entrance buildings, built on an old railroad right-of-way, and continued a greenway along the right-of-way as far as Alewife. The plaza is designed to serve as the center of Davis Square, providing a gathering place and a center for activities and outdoor entertainment. The MBTA’s Red Line extension qualified it to receive state percent-for-art moneys. One percent of the cost of constructing the new headhouses was used to commission the figurative sculptures, some representing local citizens, that adorn the plaza. In addition, tiles designed by neighborhood children were installed in the station and a large sculpture was commissioned to hang over the tracks. The public art projects fit in with the City’s goal of creating a community place; a place where residents could feel a sense of ownership.

At Mayor Capuano’s recommendation in 1995, the City’s Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD), with input from the Task Force, engaged a consultant to improve Davis Square Plaza/Statue Park and make it more attractive as a gathering place. The city will provide new and upgraded amenities for the plaza, such as improved lighting, and new furniture, landscaping and flag poles, and the MBTA will replace the station’s long skylight. The existing barrel-vaulted, plexiglass skylight extending across the plaza, obscures the view of adjacent stores and is out of scale with the neighboring buildings. A new, lower skylight of more durable materials is being planned to serve a dual purpose: it will also function as a podium or stage for speakers and performances.

City agencies are also working with the Massachusetts Highway Department (MHD) to add a second bicycle path through the square, with new bike racks near the station, and to improve bike connections to neighboring communities. Other community groups such as the Somerville Bicycle Committee and the Friends of the Bikeway are involved in the process. In addition, a new substation for the City’s community policing program, which includes police on bicycles, is being created within one of the station buildings. The continuing success of this project can be attributed both to the interagency cooperation between the MBTA, Mass Highway and the City of Somerville and to the ongoing involvement of the Davis Square Task Force and other community groups.

Overcoming Obstacles

During the planning stages, the resident members of the Davis Square Task Force struggled to keep Davis Square from becoming overdeveloped. According to Lee Auspitz, a long-time member of the Task Force, local residents (who at the time wielded more power than the business interests on the Task Force) had at first opposed the subway extension, fearing that it would "ruin the neighborhood." Preserving a stable, residential environment was their primary goal and they fought to prevent Davis Square from becoming just another regional shopping mall. If they had to have a subway then "the subway was to be there for the community, not the community for the subway".

While local businesses pushed for an increase in parking, residents thought more parking would lead to the disintegration of the urban fabric of the neighborhood. "Park and Ride" became a dirty word and even "kiss and ride" drop-offs were discouraged. As a result, no facilities for commuter parking are provided today in Davis Square. The Task Force fought long and hard to keep Davis Square pedestrian-oriented, even helping to defeat a mayor who favored large-scale commercial redevelopment of the area and the construction of large parking structures.

The Task Force also encouraged the MBTA to minimize its intervention in the neighborhood; while the MBTA had initially planned to demolish sixty-four houses and businesses, it ultimately removed only four houses. The Task Force and local citizens, through various tactics, were able to convince the MBTA to accommodate the needs of the community both in the design and planning of the station and throughout the long and disruptive construction phase. Goody Clancy’s project architect was a resident of Davis Square himself and worked closely with local citizens to integrate the station buildings into the existing fabric with as little disruption as possible.

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Elements of Note: Davis Square is home to many annual community events such as ArtBeat, sponsored by the Somerville Arts Council. Also, the plaza is periodically used for public speaking.

The Somerville Theater, a historic landmark in the Square, is capitalizing upon the Square’s improvements as well as its proximity to transit. Its monthly programs, which include live as well as film performances, attract a regional audience and enjoys renewed patronage. Its restoration and reconstruction, scheduled for 1996, reflects favorably upon the Square’s recent improvements.

Davis Square is also host to new commercial office space. Since 1988, two substantial office buildings totaling approximately 170,000 square feet have been completed, and are at 100% occupancy. Building tenants include a major regional community health care provider, a medium-sized architectural firm, and headquarters for a local bank. Also, the Square hosts a number of start-up businesses.

Taken together, these activities add vitality to the Square, both during and after traditional business hours. Undoubtedly, the transit improvements have contributed significantly to the Square’s overall health. The transit station has made it possible for people to reach the Square without bringing cars into the densely settled area. Rent control was abolished recently in the neighboring communities of Cambridge, Boston and Brookline, and the affordable housing available in Somerville, combined with access to its good public transit, has made it an attractive place for people to locate. Other factors which increased the Square’s attractiveness include changes in living preferences and increased private transportation costs, which bolsters support for public transit use.

The Red Line Extension Land Use Study, prepared in 1988 by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, analyzed the changes in land use and commercial and residential development five years after the completion of the extension. The report states, "Davis Square appears to have passed the turning point on its way to recovery. Businesses in the Square, old and new alike, are generally thriving and public confidence is high. The Red Line clearly ... helped to stimulate this revitalization, but it was clearly accomplished only by a cooperative effort of the municipality, local merchants, and the residents of Davis Square." Specifically, the report states that businesses near the station show increased sales and office and retail uses rose by 10 percent.


Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Red Line Extension, Land Use Study, 1988.

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