General Electric’s move from Connecticut to Boston is the latest high profile employer to make the greater metro area its home. The unique combination of a highly educated workforce, a cluster of elite universities, and an ecosystem of high-tech, research and development, and health science firms make the region highly attractive to cutting edge industries.
Outside of Boston, Cambridge has been a major beneficiary of this growth, but with its planned redevelopment, Somerville’s Union Square is looking to get in on the action.
Somerville’s comprehensive plan, SomerVision, envisions the city as a regional employment center, a concept that is driving the planning process in Union Square. US2, the master developer partner for the redevelopment, has made the employment center idea the centerpiece of its early efforts, and has taken a series of steps already to fulfill that vision.
Among the initial actions US2 took was to partner with Boston-based co-working space network Workbar to bring a location to Union Square. The resulting Workbar Union is an “innovative way to bring more vitality and commerce to Union Square and jumpstart its revitalization, helping both new and existing businesses,” said US2 President Greg Karczewski in a press release from last June’s announcement of the deal.
Workbar Union is located in the former Elegant Furniture building, which had been vacant since the fall of 2014 and required many improvements to reactivate it. US2 utilized local contractors to perform the work, and even commissioned a local artist, Crystal Rene Burney, to design and paint an indoor mural that pays tribute to Union Square. Workbar Union plays host to US2’s headquarters as well.
Now, on any given day, the space is bustling with entrepreneurs that Karzewski hopes will grow their enterprise in Union Square. In the meantime, neighboring restaurants and shops have noticed an uptick in business thanks to new workers who frequent the shared office space downtown. Karczewski says Workbar Union will “help prime the local employment market” in preparation for the redevelopment.
In conjunction with Union Square Main Streets, US2 is also sponsoring a technical assistance program to help local storefront businesses take advantage of the changes that are coming to Union Square. The program is operated by the City of Somerville and provides assessments, recommendations and implementation support from retail experts and a $1,000 grant to help small businesses implement these recommendations. So far, nine small businesses have been selected to participate in the program.
“This program will help us grow our business in ways that benefit our community,” said program beneficiary Kim LaFoy, co-owner of Loyal Supply Company, a design firm, retailer, and distributor of home, office and studio supplies. “We appreciate the support we’re receiving from US2, and it’s nice to know they’re supporting existing local businesses as they revitalize Union Square.”
Bringing more activity to the Square is critical to building a thriving downtown, and it is a common thread in US2’s efforts. The need for more daytime activity inspired US2’s “Union Lunch” series over the summer. The ten-week lunch hour series in Union Square Plaza featured more than 20 local vendors serving up their most popular lunch dishes, desserts and marketing their goods. US2 estimates the series drew 500 patrons and created over $5,000 in lunchtime revenue.
Also fitting into US2’s employment center strategy is the old Union Square Post Office. While the building occupies a parcel designated for development by US2, Karczewki’s team instead opted to collaborate with the building’s new owners, led by legendary concert promoter Don Law, to turn the building into a mixed-use facility.
In December, Karczewski joined Law and his business partner Seth Grady at a public meeting to unveil and receive public feedback on potential designs for the building. Attendees were enthusiastic about the initial proposals, which include live performance space in the building’s basement, a market and a co-working office space.
Central to all of this is the completion of a MBTA station in Union Square as part of the Green Line Extension. Projected cost overruns have led some to propose nixing the station in favor of a shuttle or commuter rail stop. Somerville officials have strongly objected to any plan that does not include a T stop that residents have been fighting for over two decades.
Karczewski believes the T station is necessary to realize the full economic development potential of Union Square, but has expressed confidence that Mayor Curtatone, local officials and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration will find a way to ensure the promise of a Union Square station is kept.
Regardless, US2 is continuing to pursue the employment center strategy. “SomerVision, imagines a city where you live near where you work and shop, and where public transportation options link the city to the region,” said Karcewski in a recent statement. “While the landscape may be shifting, US2’s commitment to realizing that future for Union Square is not.”