Transit Oriented Development (TOD)
Case Study

Davis Square, Somerville, Massachusetts

Davis Square has long been the primary commercial center in Somerville, a city of 76,000 adjacent to Cambridge and Boston. Prior to World War II, the Square, which grew up around freight railroad tracks, flourished as a center of industry and commerce. Beginning in the 1950s, the area fell into decline, and by the early 1970s empty storefronts and deteriorating buildings and infrastructure characterized the area. Today, Davis Square is a vibrant urban center that boasts a mix of retail, office, institutional, residential and entertainment uses. Through careful planning and land assembly, the City integrated redevelopment of existing structures with new development of over 170,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as new multi-family housing.

Davis Square streetscape.A Transit Oriented Revitalization

In 1970, the MBTA began planning the extension of the Red Line from Harvard Square north to Arlington, with the original plans bypassing Somerville entirely. Recognizing that a Red Line station could act as a catalyst for the revitalization of Davis Square, a group of Somerville residents, businesspersons, and city officials began a campaign to reroute the Red Line through Somerville with a stop in Davis Square. This early foresight by the community commenced a long public planning process to revitalize Davis Square using the Red Line station as the cornerstone of their effort.

The revitalized Davis Square represents a thriving urban transit-oriented development area. The success of this TOD can be traced to several factors. First and foremost, the community came together in the early planning stages of the Red Line expansion program and created a partnership between residents, businesses and public officials that remains in place today. Early in the planning process, the City established a Davis Square Task Force, which developed the Davis Square Action Plan, a document that continues to guide development in the Square. The Action Plan addressed building reuse and demolition, streetscape and facade improvements, pedestrian amenities, parking, traffic, and land use. The City designated a redevelopment area within the square that allowed for property acquisition and clearance, infrastructure improvements, and some public control over new private development within the area. A Design Review Overlay District helps ensure that redevelopment and new construction blends in with the existing built environment and encourages pedestrian activity.

Multiple Stakeholders for an Integrated Approach

The City also worked diligently with state and federal agencies to package grants to finance civic improvements throughout the square. These included:

  • Streetscape improvements such as street and sidewalk reconstruction, street lighting, fencing and plantings, funded through the Federal Highway Administration's Urban Systems Program.
  • The utilization of Community Development Block Grants to finance a storefront and façade improvement program, which was later continued by a local bank and is now entirely market driven with no public funding.
  • Designation of the Square as a Commercial Area Revitalization District (CARD), which allowed the use of industrial revenue bonds for infrastructure and building improvements.
  • The use of Urban Development Action Grant money for planning and site development for the 100,000 square feet Buena Vista office and retail complex.
  • The development of elderly housing and new parking for businesses.
  • Renovations to existing parks and the creation of new parks with the assistance of the MBTA and the Massachusetts Highway Department.
  • The reuse of old freight railroad right-of-way for bicycle and pedestrian pathways connecting to the Alewife T station, and the Minuteman bike path.
  • Extensive public art in the T station and on public plazas adjacent to the two station entrances, paid for through the state percent-for-art funds program. This program allows 1% of station development costs to be used for public art.
3 photos of Davis Square.

To further encourage pedestrian activity and discourage auto usage in the square, the City convinced the T to provide commuter parking at the station. Further, traffic calming measures such neck-downs, pedestrian safety islands, clearly marked brick crosswalks, signage, and pedestrian signalization all help to reduce the speed of traffic flow and improve pedestrian safety. Benches, trash receptacles, street lighting, plantings, public art, sidewalk materials, and public spaces all enhance the pedestrian experience. The T provides extensive facilities for bicycle storage at the station entrances. Surveys conducted in the late 1980s found that the majority of Red Line users accessed the T by foot, with only 13 percent using automobiles to arrive at the station. Further, while planners projected that only 3,000 riders per day would use the Davis Square Red Line station, daily ridership exceeds 10,000.