9/25/12: Field Trip, Part 1: Somerville Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development

Discussion leaders: George Proakis, Director of Planning; Michael Glavin, Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Community Development; Brad Rawson, Economic Development Planner (and Tufts UEP alum!)

With a staff of about 50, Somerville has a relatively large and active planning department. All speakers commented on Somerville’s exciting, inclusive environment, and attributed much of the city’s vibrancy to anchor institutions, adequate financial investment, and effective partnerships with various players.

How would these planners define an anchor institution? Clearly “eds and meds.” Cultural institutions. Organizations with a long-term footprint in community, maintaining a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the community. Institutions with a long-range plan, which believe they will  exist in the community as long as there is a community. Important that community wants the institution there.

Some neighborhood organizations are more long-lasting than others, but more effective, longer-lasting ones could be considered anchors. 

Somerville benefits from proximity to Boston, draws huge number of non-profits, research institutions, art institutions, etc.

Churches are an important, often overlooked anchor. Major transition as many larger churches decline in membership; meanwhile urban ministries becoming much more popular. 

Many communities that have defined themselves around educational anchor have been particularly resilient during recent recession. There has been a huge growth in intellectual capacity that many other communities have not experienced. Some communities still struggle with how to best take advantage of a university as an anchor–example: Syracuse, NY.  Tufts has a unique position in Medford/Somerville location–has been particularly well-equipped to be able to choose and define its community.

What are examples of anchor institutions the community has partnered with? Who is responsible for coordinating these partnerships?

Mostly an informal process in City Hall, unlike Tufts’ very well-defined Office of Community Relations. Many planners in City Hall reach out to various city contacts. Additionally, many residents approach the city. Community partnerships happen more frequently in planning department than in many other city departments.

Key question for a partnership: What do both sides want to achieve from the arrangement? All players must reveal their goals, or partnership is likely to fall apart/be ineffective.

Does the department have a tendency to hire candidates who are interested in establishing community partnerships?

Many employees have previous experience with these partnerships, in either an educational or an academic environment. Turnover is fairly important, in balancing core group with new members with fresh perspective. Most people come in well-versed in community partnerships.

Part of the success of Somerville’s comprehensive plan, SomerVision, has been in partnerships. Steering committee was made up of a very mixed group, including many from anchor institutions–when list of members was made public, and all publicly advocated for the plan, this was instrumental in public acceptance.

What are some roles Somerville would like anchor institutions to fill? What roles do they currently fill? What types of institutions would the city like to attract?

Somerville does not have a large amount of land to offer to developers, so must constantly consider redevelopment for new uses. Wants to attract anchors that are gateways to entrepreneurship, innovation, and venture capitalism. Somerville could be an alternative to costlier business development in Cambridge. Union Square, Brickbottom, and Inner Belt areas are still developing.

Example of positive development: 2 years ago, Ames Envelope Factory, a major blue-collar employer and longtime community anchor, was shut down. The five-acre, well-located site sat empty until a planner helped to facilitate partnership between several community orgs to move into some of the space. Artisan’s Asylum, a local organization, now leases 40,000 square feet, and has spurred much innovation from the space. Facility now also houses a wine distribution company, open offices, and a rock-climbing gym. The establishment has produced interest, energy, and vitality for a range of people with varying means and interest.

A Boston example: Harvard University’s purchase of old WGBH studios in Allston. Business school rehabilitated the building as an “innovation lab,” where students could meet and discuss potential business ventures. Left the first floor open and transparent to community members, who can use the facility and take advantage of expert advice. Community benefit seen to outweigh Harvard’s tax-free status (which can cause some nonprofit anchors to be seen as undesirable landowners).

Takeaways from these examples: 

1. Communities taking a broad view of multiple players.

2. Communities taking on facilitation of such projects.

3. Awareness of actual and future potential of the anchor as a source of innovation. This one can be a challenge–Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) managed to do so in development of Waterfront district. Any development that would be supported by BRA must demonstrate uniqueness of what type of work will be done, or how it will be done.

What are some challenges communities face when working with anchor institutions?

Somerville views the creative arts as a growth industry, particularly in the Brickbottom district. Tufts will be important in this initiative, and with providing performance space, etc.

Anchor institutions most effective when they employ many people from the community, share their strengths and knowledge with the community, and make a contribution to their cost of carry—fire and police services. Service infrastructure will be important in the future. Nonprofits are welcome, but Somerville also needs to continue to build tax base.

Places need to grow and evolve. Davis Square has made huge investment in transportation, but provides relatively few jobs. Must balance character with jobs and development, and balance human and economic needs.

Huge change coming in travel. More and more use of rapid transit to get to and from cities, and anchor institutions are running out of accessible room. Infrastructure is growing in Somerville, and many medical institutions are looking for space outside of the city for some services.

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