A citizens group called the Mystic View Task Force has organized to stop suburban sprawl from encroaching on 145 acres of urban land by the Mystic River in Somerville, Massachusetts. The defunct Assembly Square mall, a symbol of failed commercial overdevelopoment, is now the target for developers pushing a Home Depot, IKEA furniture store, and a Stop N Shop supergrocery. A total of nearly 600,000 square feet of big box stores would comprise this enormous project. The Mayor of Somerville has signed a Memorandum of Agreement for the redevelopment of Assembly Square, but local residents are trying to disassemble the deal. Most recently, 3 Aldermen proposed a zoning ordinance change that would put a cap on the size of buildings. According to the MVTF, on April 26, 2001, three proposed zoning amendments were submitted by Aldermen William White, Denise Provost, and William Roche. The first of these amendments applies to the entire city. It creates a citywide proposal prohibiting retail stores from having a building footprint of greater than 50,000 square feet. The object of this amendment is to prevent “big box” stores from taking over Somerville’s scarce undeveloped land. These large stores destroy local small businesses and a sense of community. They bring too much traffic without creating significant job or tax benefits. The proposed Home Depot and the proposed IKEA would both have building footprints more than three times the proposed limit, and the proposed Super Stop & Shop would also exceed the limit by more than 25,000 square feet. It is not clear whether the proposed 50,000 square foot retail footprint limitation will apply to Assembly Square. The Alderman’s proposed cap on size was the subject of a public hearing in Somerville on June 25th. The MVTF reports that most people who testified, spoke in favor of the new ordinance. When I spoke before the Task Force recently, I was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying: “There should be a compromise between those who believe in unlimited development, and those who reject any development, and a 50,000 s.f. limit is that compromise.” However, the Stop & Shop Corporation (owned by Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold) told the paper: “We have a great project that incorporates community input, and we are moving forward with our proposal because it’s a very good project that offers a number of community benefits.” So far, community input on the entire Assembly Square project has been very negative. Capping retail size is a planning tool that has been adopted by a number of municipalities in the U.S. and by entire European countries in recent years. For example, the Town of Boxborough, Massachusetts, limits retail stores to 25,000 square feet.In another example, Ireland has set a national limit of 32,000 square feet for all grocery stores, except in Dublin where they may be as large as 38,000 square feet. They also regulate against “big boxes” of any type that are over 64,000 square feet. This is one third the size of the new Home Depot proposed for Assembly Square and one fifth the size of the proposed IKEA. Their major concerns are community character, inappropriate use of valuable transportation resources and the prevention of monopolies.
Scores of communities across the nation have placed dimensional limits on the size of retail development. In Belfast, Maine (see below) voters recently opted 2 to 1 to approve size caps on big stores. The City of Somerville has given until noon on July 13th for members of the public to comment on the size cap proposal. Anyone can submit testimony on behalf of the limit. Sprawl-busters across America are encouraged to send in your comments by email in favor of the size cap to: [email protected] You can address your remarks to K. Lewesque, City Planner. For more information on the battle against big boxes, go to www.the-ville.com/mysticview/ , or call 617-776-0945.