The Six-City Center on the Mystic and Malden Rivers

QUICK QUIZ: What is the biggest growth district in Massachusetts outside of the city of Boston right now?

Did you guess Kendall Square? Cambridge Crossing? Somerville’s Union Square? Watertown’s Arsenal Street? Quincy Center? Lynn’s waterfront? Revere Beach? Woburn’s Commerce Way? Waltham along Route 128?

By my read, it is a place without an identity or united governance, a district that straddles the Mystic and Malden Rivers at the intersection of six cities: Everett, Medford, Somerville, Chelsea, Malden, and also a bit of Boston, at Charlestown.

The area made headlines recently for the proposed Sky Everett, a 21-story residential tower. Not many places allow that kind of height. And for decades, Everett did not have the market to support that kind of height. Now, Everett is not alone rising to the sky. Right across the Mystic, in Somerville’s Assembly Row, a roof deck graces the 24th floor of a new 500-residence tower. Just down the river, a 29-story tower of 695 homes is proposed for Charlestown.

The tri-tower-rising only hints at the scale of recent, planned, and potential growth in the amorphous district located as a natural hub between Boston-Cambridge-Somerville, the North Shore, and 128-North. The area’s spokes reach out to Salem, Woburn, Lawrence, and Boston, as well as job sites, neighborhoods, and cool destinations. The area needs good government oversight and public investment to blossom into a bustling, diverse, connected downtown like Massachusetts has not built in a hundred years. City building, despite evidence otherwise, is still possible — and needed.

By my rough count, there are 3,000 dwelling units recently constructed or permitted or now under review in the southern section of Everett, by the river. Everett’s new zoning would accommodate far more than that. In Medford, by the rivers, the count is approximately 2,500. In the part of Chelsea bordering Everett’s growth district, another thousand. And Assembly Row has well over a thousand.

The area is also a job hub, with the headquarters for Massachusetts General Brigham and for Puma North America (planned) at Assembly Row, the Encore Casino in Everett, and offices for Amazon, life science data firm ERT, and iHeartRadio, among others, by the river in Medford. It is also a shopping, dining, lodging, and entertainment zone. There are even some active industrial properties.

In sum, the six-city area is like a city center, for its density and mix of everything. Except it is not like a city center, at least not yet. For now it is an archipelago of private developments in need of the public connectivity so well known in historic downtowns.

In the 1990s, Everett, Malden, and Medford launched plans for a “Telecom City” to rise on the remediated shores of the Malden River — picture the ’80s and ‘90s-era office parks of Route 495, box-buildings on sprawling asphalt parking. The idea for the Malden’s shores was to compete with 495, with more of the same.

But then, in the new millennium, an army of young information-workers did not find the office parks hip. Economists started pointing out that asphalt fields are not so fertile for growing new ideas; cities are. Environmentalists decried the isolation of offices by highways as encouraging the kind of driving that heats the atmosphere. The roadways became gridlocked. And anyway, what are telecoms?

Better than a ribbon-windowed, office-boxed, asphalt-framed, car-centered Telecom City, this six-city area needs a real downtown. The location is ideal. The area has the framework for connectivity: Orange Line stations, commuter rail tracks, rivers that run to Boston Harbor, a rail trail from Everett through Malden up to Lynn, bus rapid transit, bus service throughout, private shuttles by land and water, and Route 93. It is surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods, not isolated in the hinterlands. The six-city area is a stone’s throw from many little downtowns of the train-and-streetcar eras — and their grand libraries, indie restaurants, and urban resilience.

Pundits have been saying for decades now: To build great cities like we used to, we have to stop prohibiting them by zoning. Pundits say: See that beloved neighborhood in Back Bay? In Newton Center? In Harvard Square? All illegal! All out-zoned!

The pundits are right. You can’t build a great urban neighborhood with requirements for large lots, deep setbacks, low building heights, separated uses, and ample parking. But, city building is not as easy as just, “Allow it already.”

Why not? Two reasons. First, the high cost of construction does not make for price-diversity in buildings, and hence new construction does not bring people-diversity and use-diversity. This is a problem for areas that are rising all-new, like the Seaport from epic parking lots, and the six-city area from post-industrial lands. And second, the whole socio-political-economic system is now set up for cars. Without public intervention, private developments will be primarily car-oriented, even when located near train stations, rivers, and rail trails.

What does it take to generate exuberant diversity?

On the first point, the Boston Globe recently lamented that “The city [of Boston] had a rare opportunity to build a new neighborhood for all Bostonians. Instead, it built the Seaport.” Decades ago, famed urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote that to generate exuberant diversity, a district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition. Dated buildings get priced right for small non-profits, startups, artists, students, and low-income residents. In the Seaport, old buildings were not available for mingling.

By the Mystic and Malden Rivers, the old buildings are industrial; they need remediation or replacement where they have not already been torn down. Low rents do not cover the cost of construction or remediation-and-renovation. The market will not, on its own, deliver new buildings priced for low-income residents and scrappy entrepreneurs. It is the role of government to make sure that diversity gets built in when all-new city-centers rise.

Prior to recent redevelopment, polluted properties walled off densely-populated working-class neighborhoods — home to many immigrants and people of color — from the Mystic and Malden Rivers. There is concern that the walls of waste are getting traded for walls of wealth that will still keep the neighbors out. Upgrades to infrastructure; cleanup of brownfields; construction of expensive housing, offices, and shops; and establishment of riverside parks, combined with a region-wide housing shortage, could put upward pressure on nearby rents. (Or not, in a shaken economy.)

When rents go up, some long-time residents adjust by devoting more income to rent and less to other needs; some crowd into apartments to divide the rent among more income-earners; and some move out of the neighborhood. Evictions increase. Local social networks get broken. And the stress of housing instability gets compounded into one heartbreaking story after another.

Even without rising rents, the short end of the region’s wide income disparities has long made housing instability a problem here. These are profoundly difficult challenges to manage. They are the kinds of problems that need dedicated, coordinated government and community attention, something the six-city post-industrial area lacks.

With management, much can be done. Zoning regulations can require builders to include affordable units on site, and public funds can be directed towards such inclusion. Funds, from development fees, foundations, and other sources, could be directed to support community organizing and local community groups that function to keep existing communities rooted and give voice to the neighbors in how the district gets developed. Development fees going to a centralized fund could be used for preservation of affordability in the nearby neighborhoods or for grants to nearby neighbors to help with rent or home-buying or home repairs.

The district can also be integrated with programming, arts and culture, job incubators, and mentorship programs. The area can be planned with new public places for gathering, pop-up stores, food trucks, community art galleries, and various entrepreneurial undertakings. First-floor “retail” spaces can be used for programs for families with small kids.

How do we get more than car-oriented development?

On the second point, Greater Boston already has a road network that can lead drivers anywhere they want to go. Building car-centric development is as easy as “just add water.” All a development needs, to be plugged in, is parking and a driveway, which can be built on site without coordination with other parcel owners or government authorities, beyond the permitting agents. Enough people own cars and drive regularly to constitute a robust market for car-oriented buildings.

In contrast, building for non-car mobility, for walkability where cars are still coming and going, for cyclists to cross the same areas, for good access to buses and trains, takes so much more planning and coordination, across government bodies and parcels of land.

By the Mystic and Malden Rivers, developments remain largely gated off from one another, and not as well connected to the region as they could be. Take for example the 45 acres at Assembly Row, a paragon of new urbanism, with grid streets, parallel parking, and tall buildings (with zero-setbacks) containing first-floor shops that line wide sidewalks. Assembly Row looks like a traditional bustling downtown except that it is only a few blocks long, all under single ownership, and it has hard edges defined by tracks, river, and highway. It has its own subway station, but residents, revelers, and workers in Everett cannot walk the short distance across the river to the station or to Assembly Row’s restaurants.

Along the rivers, some buildings are surrounded by parking; others have in-house parking and are fronted by driveways. The convenience of ample free on-property parking encourages driving and undermines street life.

Making parking slightly less convenient would encourage walking, biking, and the use of public transportation — the bustle of a healthy city. In Quincy Center, the city of Quincy built a public parking structure, so apartments could rise without in-house parking. Public policies should minimize parking’s inclusion on private properties and aim to decouple the price of parking from rents and salaries. Guidelines for walkable, bikeable, connected site plans are needed.

Ideas abound for improved connectivity in the area via bus rapid transit, pedestrian bridges over rivers and highways, gondolas, new train stations, shuttles, protected bike routes, and more. Leaders of the area’s respective cities could be weighing in together about which mobility projects are priorities.

Assembly Row is such a large-scale project that its developer was able to build a train station to serve it. The Encore Casino launched its own shuttle system. Most projects are not that big; it will make sense for the developers to contribute to a shared fund for large scale improvements.

How to make it a real city center?

Pre-pandemic, there were calls to slow the growth wheel here in Greater Boston, to catch up with planning. Then a strange thing happened during the pandemic: the real estate market did not crash. We still need to catch up with planning, regulation, and investment — in a strong or weak real estate market. These are the responsibilities of government. City building is not done by private developers alone.

For decades, public oversight of development has been focused on the mitigation of adverse impacts; “mitigation” has typically involved downsizing and isolating projects and negotiating for one-off improvements to infrastructure. To leverage value — to build a city center on city edges — we need to go big, not small.

The mayors of these six cities by the Mystic and Malden Rivers could form a board, with additional representation from the communities and key state agencies, to meet regularly to make decisions about investments. They could control a cross-municipal fund constituted at least in part with development fees. Their mandate could include addressing issues of equity and inclusion and regional mobility, as well as environmental remediation and flood reduction.

The six-city area is Greater Boston’s preeminent proving ground for city builders. Our shared task is not to build a series of gated-style, car-oriented developments, but to grow a resilient downtown for everyone.

Public policy research: housing and land use, data use in public management, and environmental issues. Greater Boston. Instagram, Twitter: @amydain