I hear fairly frequently from constituents that Davis Square is being neglected by the City, with the attention spent on Davis often compared unfavorably to the efforts put into improving or completely redeveloping Assembly Square, Broadway in East Somerville, and Union Square in the past decade-plus. The fact the Davis Square Neighborhood Plan stalled out in 2018 after years of work definitely has contributed to this feeling, but the release in late 2023 of a draft of the Davis Square Commercial Area Plan has restarted the process.

Davis Square bricks

The City is seeking feedback on that draft, both through an online survey and community meetings, like the one held on January 29 at the West Branch Library. Turnout was huge, overwhelming the capacity of the space chosen to host the meeting and leading to some annoyance from those who showed up.

With Davis Square fairly unchanged since undergoing a dramatic makeover in the mid-80s with the arrival of the Red Line station and the activism of Davis Now, it's well past time to be doing this planning. I totally understand the frustration of folks who don't understand why we're still at this stage 12 years after starting this conversation. It definitely feels like we've spun our wheels as a city for a while on this, while Davis has paid the price.

A small silver lining to that delay that Planning, Preservation and Zoning Director Sarah Lewis pointed out, the delay did allow for additional insights. One of these was the support for outdoor dining and the related pedestrianization of Elm Street that grew out of changes ushered in by the pandemic, as the City looked to help restaurants survive COVID. This led to the realization of what was possible by reimagining Elm Street with people prioritized over vehicles.

Now this pedestrianization of Elm Street is dependent on two important dominos that need to fall first, in order for this to proceed. The first thing is two important redevelopment projects on the street -- Asana's 7th Spoke project and Scape's 231-249 Elm Street project -- revamping parking for businesses along the street. Both of these projects currently are paused due to global market conditions, and it's hardly a certainty that the Scape project will move forward at all ever.

The second thing that needs to happen is Highland Avenue becoming a two-way street those last two blocks between Cutter Avenue and Davis Square. The Highland Avenue Redesign Project also is currently paused and not scheduled to resume until next year. Now it's always possible that this stretch of Highland Ave could always just be made bi-directional separate from that redesign process. It's currently a safety issue for vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians due to the two lanes traveling the same way and the unsafe situations this creates.

One of the major points of contention at last month's community meeting and in recent years has been a decision on what to do with all the brick that typifies Davis Square. Supporters of the brick tout its distinctive look that adds to the character of the square, while highlighting advancements in the brick manufacturing process and construction techniques that address accessibility issues that arise over time due to uneven brick surfaces. Opponents of the brick are unconvinced that we've solved for uneven brick surfaces and want to see accessibility prioritized over aesthetics.

Density is another hot button topic when it comes to Davis. Despite being a key transit hub in the city because of the Red Line station and all the bus routes going through or to Davis Square, there are a shocking number of two- and even one-story buildings right in the heart of the square. This is clearly an absolutely terrible use of land at a transit hub, so naturally there's a drive to fix that. The two new developments were approved for four stories, which may not sound like much height, but is a big improvement for Davis Square, where height had met with vocal opposition for a while. I'm expecting a push to allow at least six stories of height in transit areas.

This should ease the way for better density in Davis, setting up the familiar problem of how to get the density we need while protecting the local small businesses that are a critical part of the fabric of Somerville. How can you redevelop equitably and reasonably while preserving existing small businesses? Phased construction with temporary swing spaces while their new space is built and strategic long-term relocation of businesses to nearby spaces are two ways, and I'd love to see much more of that here in Somerville.

But perhaps the biggest question facing Davis Square is whether it is a social dining and entertainment hub or confluence of street for moving vehicles through. It can't effectively be both, so we're going to have to choose to prioritize people or vehicles. I definitely favor humanity over machines, and the local business owners I speak with tend to feel the same, as this will make it a more hospitable business environment while pushing cut-through commuter traffic to south to Mass Ave and north to Broadway.

I'll be watching this planning process closely, and I hope you join me at future meetings about Davis Square. I'll make sure to share news about the next meeting in my newsletter and on social media.

Jake Wilson


Somerville City Councilor-At-Large (he/him/él)