The emergence of Assembly Row in Somerville has been a boon for the city which essentially created a new, easily-accessible destination neighborhood complete with housing, retail, hospitality, office space and riverside views. But Assembly is isolated from nearby bustling Broadway Street, detached from Somerville proper by the imposing elevated I-93, which acts as a barricade between the two.
Unlike the portion of I-93 that once cut through the heart of Downtown Boston, the Somerville section won’t be relocated underground as a tunnel with a beautiful green park spanning its length up above. The Big Dig is never far from the minds of Greater Boston residents. Instead, the city is devising a way to make an oft-used underpass beneath the highway a more welcoming and secure access point for pedestrians to get to and from Assembly, as well as the rest of Somerville.
While MassDOT was securing approval for a similar development project that includes public space and greenery beneath a stretch of I-93 through Boston’s South End – part of MassDOT’s Infra-Space program to revamp areas situated beneath elevated structures – East Somerville Main Streets (ESMS) was garnering support for MassDOT and the City of Somerville to re-imagine the Kensington Underpass per the Infra-Space model.
The truth is ESMS and WalkBoston, who have partnered together for neighborhood walks and various local programming efforts to advocate for smarter pedestrian thruways in the city, are looking at multiple scenarios for how best to revamp the underpass including the Infra-Space endeavor. Infra-Space, it seems, could provide the most fruitful yield.
“Highway underpasses are often wasted and unwelcoming spaces that divide communities, which is why we are working with the community and international design experts to reclaim these public spaces,” said Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone in a statement. “With our goals to become the most walkable, bikeable, and transit accessible city in the country, as well as to add 125 acres of new open space into our compact 4.1 square miles, we have to get creative, and underpasses offer just the kind of challenge we like to tackle here in Somerville: daunting perhaps, but full of potential.”
The importance of improving the underpass can’t be stressed enough and it goes beyond simply providing a connection between two areas of the city.
There’s not one Somerville public school located on the Assembly side of the underpass. When taking into account that 15 percent of the 26,903 of people living within a one-mile radius of Assembly Row are earning less than $15,000 per year and likely can’t afford to send their children to private school or drive them personally, it becomes clearer that the underpass is used just as much if not more for sustaining a family’s quality of life than for touring Assembly.
Teresa Vazquez-Dodero, Executive Director of ESMS, told me about one family in which a young child was forced to miss several school days this winter on top of mandatory snow days because the Kensington Underpass wasn’t properly cleared and maintained. In bootstrapped households where an education is paramount, this simply is unacceptable.
And these issues aren’t only occurring during the winter months. Once the snow clears and the way is free of inclement impediments, there’s still the danger of crossing the street to enter the underpass and the wind-strewn trash that’s been known to contain shards of broken glass and syringes.
Further, it’s one of the few linkages for Assembly-area residents to cross over in order to procure groceries and other goods at Super Stop & Shop.
The Kensington Underpass is designed in a way that permits a passerby to enter only after crossing one way of fast-paced Route 38 traffic in one direction. Upon exiting, one must again cross Route 38 traffic this time in the other direction.
There’s no stoplight, yield sign or notable warning for zooming cars to be wary of pedestrians and cyclists hoping to cross unscathed save for a single set of blinking lights at each end. This might be enough to secure safe passage if this section of Route 38 wasn’t in the midst of an on- and off-ramp.
“Incorporating an arts project while creating safe transportation connections between neighborhoods is a win-win. We’re hopeful that improving the street crossing on the approach to the underpass would be a priority as part of the project, too,” said Brendan Kearney, Communications Manager at WalkBoston. “Drivers treat this section of the road as an extended acceleration zone before the 93 on-ramp, and don’t expect people walking or biking here; re-painted lane lines and a raised crosswalk would go a long way to improving safety for everyone.”
In all, the underpass is in dire need of new safety infrastructure, signage, cleanliness and regular maintenance, and a cultural aspect that would beautify the space and mirror East Somerville’s vast diversity similar to what was done with the Lombardi Overpass.
But the mural, Vazquez-Dodero said, doesn’t appear to have been created for the long term and is already starting to show signs of wear and tear. She envisions the Kensington Underpass as having staying power that endures for longer, the responsibility for which would be evenly distributed among stakeholders – whether that means the state, city or local organizations – and upheld on a regular basis.
To that end, Vazquez-Dodero and WalkBoston have been in talks with the City of Somerville, Federal Realty (which owns Assembly) and local artists for how best to achieve a viable passageway.
MassDOT is currently soliciting a Request for Ideas (RFI), for which the City of Somerville offered up thoughts based on discussions its had with ESMS, WalkBoston and others.
“We’ve submitted our Infra-Space nomination form for Kensington underpass, for Broadway under I-93, and for the Gilman Street underpass under McGrath Highway,” Daniel DeMaina, City of Somerville Media Manager, told me in an email. “The response from MassDOT to the information we submitted has been positive, and we will be working with the State this summer to advance the process.”
The City of Somerville has also contacted Freight Farms, a local startup that allows customers to grow gardens in recycled shipping containers, to possibly set up a few of its farm products to bolster local food production and distribution in the area.
Freight Farms is currently serving the Boston Latin School and Corner Stalk Farms in East Boston to name just a few of its local clients, and is currently working with Somerville as well as Boston and Cambridge for turning under-used spaces, like those beneath highways, into sustainable growing areas.
Underpasses offer just the kind of challenge we like to tackle here in Somerville: daunting perhaps, but full of potential
“Freight Farms continues to work with municipalities, public and private developers and community groups to overcome the challenge of effectively and positively utilizing difficult underpasses that are an ongoing urban trouble spot for all cities,” said Freight Farms co-founder and CEO Brad McNamara. “This project is another opportunity for Somerville to emerge as a leader in urban farming initiatives, and we’re excited to see it develop in the future.”
DeMaina added that Criterion Development Partners, developer of the proposed project at 75 Cross Street East located behind the Stop & Shop lot, has already committed $20,000 for improvements to the Kensington underpass.
It’s unclear at this time where MassDOT is in the process to determine another Infra-Space location and the likelihood of it being done at this, or any, underpass in Somerville. Surely all of the proposals that come MassDOT’s way will offer a much-needed transformation of the respective space in question.
Somerville, though, is experiencing tremendous growth in this particular location. The population is projected to skyrocket from an estimated 879,002 of people living within a five-mile radius of Assembly in 2014 to 915,784 come 2019. In 20 years, Assembly could be double the size it is now.
To that end, redeveloping the underpass is a pressing need in order for Assembly area residents to enjoy a solid education, pick up household goods at Super Stop & Shop with ease and digest a dose of local arts and culture in an otherwise banal and even sketchy public space.