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Two new lab buildings being designed on McGrath Highway at Medford Street

(Somerville Wire) – US2, the developer currently leading the 17-acre building project in the heart of Union Square, recently purchased another property on the edge of the square, and is proposing to build nearly a million gross square feet of additional lab and commercial space there.

US2 had its first public meeting as the new owners of 200 McGrath Highway on Aug. 24. Facilitated by Ward 3 City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, the virtual meeting included presentations from the former development team, led by Spaulding & Slye Investments and Capital Hall Partners, which remain partners in the Gateway Innovation Center Project.  

Daniel St. Clair from Spaulding & Slye Investments explained why they partnered with US2. “As a natural progression of this project, and its need for larger capital partners and additional development horsepower, we identified US2 with their partner, USAA, that team, as the right development partner for the project, earlier this summer. The US2/USAA team brings scale, development expertise, and a long history of community-focused development in the Union Square area. We are very pleased to have them on the team.”

This was the fifth public meeting about the project, part of a process that began several years ago. As they prepare a Master Plan, which must be approved by the Planning Board, the developers are focusing on the higher-level design issues such as size of buildings, number of parking spots, and open space.

B.K. Boley, senior principal at Stantec Architecture, presented the revised plans. His presentation was built on the concepts aired at previous meetings, and the feedback received from the City, community members, and the market, the developers said.

The previous proposal, presented last October, offered one 20-story and one 14-story building, totaling 1.2 million gross square feet, with 900 below-grade parking spaces.

The developers’ revised proposal has reduced square footage by 18 percent, lopped off six stories, and subtracted 312 parking spaces.

Five percent of the space would be reserved for “arts and creative enterprises,” as defined by the City’s zoning rules. At the eastern edge of the property, a 7,860-square-foot public park would be created on Somerville Avenue Extension. The development would have two underground parking garages with vehicle access from Medford Street and Somerville Avenue Extension, as well as two bicycle parking lots.  

Across McGrath Highway is the Brickbottom artist complex as well as the City’s long-planned Art Farm. Brickbottom artists were among the dozen or so residents who voiced a variety of questions and concerns at the meeting.

Alyson Schultz, a Brickbottom Artists Association resident artist, said she attended all five of the public meetings and still has a lot of concerns about traffic, parking, open space, and other aspects of the development.

“The buildings are smaller” than in previous iterations of the plans, “but they’re still massively huge,” she said.

She also pointed out that there are other proposed developments around the Brickbottom neighborhood on McGrath Highway and Chestnut Street, but there’s no master plan to manage the new traffic.

Schultz also questioned the five percent set-aside for “arts and creative enterprises.” As a Brickbottom artist, she said, fine artists won’t be able to afford the rent in the new buildings. The “creative enterprises” would more likely be an ad agency or an architectural firm, “but not the Joy Street Studio artist, not the Brickbottom artist. It’s much more like a high-end commercial art space,” she said.

“Somerville right now is in an art crisis, because in the same way that residents are being priced out, artists are being priced out of this city,” she said.

Ewen-Campen said the City is working on “cleaning up” the regulations on “arts and creative enterprises.”

“This is an issue that is very near and dear to my heart,” he said. “We are losing artists’ buildings left and right across the city, and it’s completely unacceptable.”

Andy Greenspon, co-chair of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, said his organization has been following the development of this project since it was first proposed. USNC is a community advocacy organization that was formed in 2017 to help the City negotiate for “community benefits” from developers in the Union Square area. USNC and US2 signed Somerville’s first official Community Benefits Agreement in 2019.

Addressing Greg Karczewski, the president of US2, Greenspon said one of the other owners, Capital Hall, “had previously agreed to negotiate a community benefits agreement, in good faith, with us.” He asked Karczewski whether US2 was intending to negotiate a CBA.

“I can’t speak to the agreements that were made previously,” Karczewski answered. “I think there’s a significant amount of benefit being created from this project. If the community near the site has other local benefit priorities that they’d want to talk about, we’d be willing to discuss them and consider them.”

Greenspon replied, “It seems like the community that has spoken here has listed quite a lot of priorities that they have, that could be put into a community benefits agreement.”

Developers, he said, provide public benefits because the City requires them, but these are broad, city-wide benefits, such as contributions to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and sewer infrastructure. A CBA would be focused on the local area priorities, such as creating more green space, traffic mitigation, support for community groups in the Union Square area, and other needs.

“You purchased this parcel for $200 million,” Greenspon claimed, based on public reports. “I would hope that, given how much money you were willing to spend on this parcel, that you could spare a fraction, one percent or a little more, on those direct benefits, either negotiating with us the Union Square Neighborhood Council, with Brickbottom, or whatever works best for the community.”

Karczewski said it is likely to take about another two years to complete the review and permitting process. The next step is submitting a Master Plan and receiving a special permit from the Planning Board, which they expect to complete this year. After Planning Board approval, they would have several more neighborhood meetings, a presentation to the Urban Design Commission, and design and site plan review. Assuming approval, the construction process would take about 2 1/2 years, he added.

Several residents called for in-person discussions in addition to the online public meetings. “I think there would be a huge benefit to having an actual dialogue,” Ewen-Campen said.

The developers of 200 McGrath Highway will lead a site walk this Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 1 p.m. They will meet in the parking lot of 216 McGrath Hwy. (formerly Hub Glass). The public is invited to attend. Those who cannot make it are invited to email US2 President Greg Karczewski at—who will set up another site walk within two weeks of the first one.

Photo caption: The current site map for the proposed 200 McGrath Highway, bordering Medford Street and Somerville Avenue Extension near Union Square. Photo courtesy of US2. 

Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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