Incremental Urbanism

Somerville, Massachusetts

C+PA's design is a catalyst for the green revitalization of Brickbottom - a 45-acre, derelict industrial district in Somerville, MA. Our design builds on the strong local community, cultural diversity, natural and built history, and relevant urban and architectural structures, while looking to the future with new mixed programs and typologies, intertwined transportation and public green space, and sustainable strategies. With 80,000 residents in four square miles, Somerville's dense urbanity is the best location in New England to develop this model. We submitted our design to the Edge as Center Competition sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects.

Environment + History: By overlaying historic maps, one understands that Brickbottom was originally a marshland adjacent to the Miller River. The triangular block bounded by McGrath highway, Medford Street and the Fitchburg railway line, a riverbed just 130 years ago, is now a vast auto impound lot. The design proposes public acquisition of this property to create Miller River Park with a baseball diamond. Registering the original River's edge, the Park captures and filters surface runoff from a continuous bioswale along the south side of Somerville Avenue—a role previously played by the extensive marshlands.

City squares and main thoroughfares. Somerville is to the right, Cambridge to the left.

Charles River and Miller River (blue) and marshland (green) extent in the 18th century.

Gateway + Connections: Brickbottom is nearly invisible regionally, causing a lack of identity and challenges to economic development and public safety. Inaccessibility results from rail and highway interruptions to the street grid, loss of a major urban threshold when the Miller River was filled, and general lack of hierarchy within a field of triple-deckers and industrial buildings. Poor connections to adjacent neighborhoods will be improved by continuing the tradition of “squares” as public spaces with strong identity, strengthening the street grid, reconnecting and greening district edges, and retaining significant buildings and infrastructure to maintain temporal continuity. This proposal reinstates Somerville Ave as an important nieghborhood gateway by changing the street section, calibrating the alignment, and building a pedestrian tower/threshold marker where the McGrath elevated highway once stood. Brickbottom will be an integrated, yet identifiable green district where history and cultural diversity is synthesized with ecologically and economically sustainable urban and architectural structures.

Integrated Open Space + Transportation Networks: Strong, but permeable public green edges will define the East and West sides of Brickbottom. The Green Line and regional bike path run through a greenway that collects and filters surface runoff, while visually and literally connecting the Inner Belt Industrial Park. A 200' wide Boulevard with spacious raingarden median is created in the demolished McGrath Highway right-of-way. This western green edge connects Brickbottom with Union Square and surrounding neighborhoods, while beautifully and safely conveying vehicular traffic North-South through the district. A series of small public green spaces, including a soccer field and baseball field, are also created.

Squares/Intersection as Public Space: Somerville is identified by distinct neighborhood squares that are vital intersections of major streets around which commercial activity aggregates. They are also public transportation hubs. The local model of public space is not the large park or stately square, but the space of the street, sidewalk, and leftover spaces resulting from irregular street geometries. The two proposed squares will have their own identity: Brickbottom Square will be Arts-focused in keeping with the current arts community, while Washington Square will be more commercial and connected with the adjacent residential neighborhood and Union Square.

Economic Vitality + Phasing: Revitalization will be funded by state and federal assistance for public transit and vehicular infrastructural improvements, with public/private partnerships and private developers capitalizing on these improvements over time. By minimizing changes to the street grid, land ownership and utility lines, incremental development will happen with few public funds. A vital mix of arts + research activities reinforce the Green model of live/work typologies and commercial activity integrated with good public transit, vehicular, bike and pedestrian access. Increased land value and accessibility will generate dense development around those squares, while incremental, market driven infill between these 2 nodes will occur over a 10-15 year period. Full buildout of the surrounding areas is expected in 25 years.