Proving Ground for Aspiring City Builders, at Mystic + Malden

This article is also posted on CommonWealth Magazine.

Greater Boston is adding jobs and population, but not enough housing, and too much traffic. How do we accommodate development to improve our lives? A proving ground for aspiring city builders is at the intersection of the Mystic River and Malden River, at the edges of Somerville, Everett, Medford, and Malden.

Across Greater Boston, find any parcel of land fenced in between highways, tracks, and water, on the edge of town, and there you will likely see big development. Thus we find, by the Mystic and Malden Rivers, a series of developments, each constituting an island, for an archipelago of new development, including:

  • Assembly Row, separated from the rest of Somerville by Route 93.
  • Rivers Edge, separated from the rest of Medford by the Orange Line tracks.
  • Station Landing, separated from the rest of Medford by two multi-lane highways.
  • Everett’s Batch Yard apartments, sandwiched in between Broadway and train tracks. The Encore Casino is in that same sandwich, on the river’s edge.

This district, which I am calling Mystic + Malden, has so much going for it, including the highways, tracks, and rivers. It is closer to downtown Boston than much of the City of Boston is. It is even closer to the job core of Cambridge, and closer still to the historic centers of Everett, Somerville, Malden, and Medford, with their restaurants, grand libraries, hand-laid brickwork, and lively bustle. Terrifically diverse communities reside in the traditional walkable neighborhoods, of the streetcar era, that surround the area. Mystic + Malden boasts two stations on the Orange Line (Assembly and Wellington), immediate access to Route 93, and bus routes. The Bike to Sea trail, from Everett to Lynn, is under construction. Although the commuter rail has no stop in Mystic + Malden, it does cut through, and could one day provide an easy connection with the North Shore’s chain of growth nodes, including in Revere, Lynn, Salem, and Beverly. And, the Mystic and Malden Rivers are good for transportation, recreation, and pretty views.

Once an industrial powerhouse, then a toxic wasteland, Mystic + Malden now represents a proven market for housing, retail, entertainment, and offices. In the last two decades, after environmental remediation, approximately 3,000 new dwelling units have gone in; Partners Healthcare has opened a headquarters and Puma is building a headquarters; retail is thriving; and Encore, a major employer, is attracting attention and customers. The area could gain thousands more dwelling units, and more of everything.

Of course, we have reason to be cautious about large city-building efforts, after the trauma of last century’s Urban Renewal that tore up neighborhoods for highways, high rises, and parking — and for the monotonous gloss and high prices of Boston’s new Seaport district, for example. Although new housing should ease price escalations at the regional level, redevelopment can displace lower-income residents and lower-revenue companies and not-for-profits at the local level. For decades, the low-income and minority neighbors of the toxic industrial properties by the Mystic and Malden Rivers had no access to their river. In theory, remediation would right the historic injustice, but in practice river reclamations attract the affluent, who can pay more for housing. In addition, Greater Boston’s traffic is reaching crisis-levels; most residents and workers of new developments arrive by car, even in locations served by public transit.

For some of these reasons, across Greater Boston, public oversight of development has been focused largely on the mitigation of adverse impacts; mitigation often involves downsizing and isolating projects and negotiating one-off improvements to infrastructure. Caution about large scale urban redevelopment has led to ad hoc decision-making, in place of long term planning, to the detriment of place-making. Our caution has led to archipelago development in seas of pavement.

Mystic + Malden need not be like that; it can be like a traditional downtown, connected, vital, walkable, and diverse. Greater Boston is a superpower in innovation, after all, and real estate itself is one of our economy’s engines, along with tech, finance, education, etc. Better land use planning should be in our wheelhouse. We need a pro-growth agenda to benefit local residents and the region’s economy, achieve design that minimizes traffic and carbon emissions, and connect projects for coherent place-making and regional mobility.

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