Tufts and local community members react to impending Davis Square renovation project

Stores located along Elm Street in Davis Square are pictured on Nov. 12. Elin Shih / The Tufts Daily
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Due to its close proximity to campus, Davis Square has been a place for many Tufts students to spend time and enjoy a variety of local businesses in the area. But according to recent local news reports, Scape Development plans to construct a four-story lab building that would displace beloved businesses including When Pigs Fly bakery, McKinnon’s Meat Market, Sligo Pub, Kung Fu Tea, Martsa on Elm Tibetan Cuisine and Dragon Pizza. On Sept. 22, the City of Somerville’s Planning Board officially approved the renovation plan. 

Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, provided the context behind the developing renovation project in Davis Square. He explained that different interest groups and the city government shape and influence real estate projects such as the one by Scape Development.

“There are not only individuals but organizations, pension funds, that are looking to grow their money, and they look at Davis Square,” Hollander said. “The city right now looks at that block and the kind of cash revenue they are generating … so the city sees this as an opportunity to increase their tax base [through the renovation project].”

Hollander added that real estate projects, such as the Scape Development plan, can increase the value of local properties, which the city of Somerville sees as financially beneficial.

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“It’s hard for them to raise taxes, and so if you can increase the value of properties [through this new lab building], then you can bring in more revenue without actually passing a bill that says everyone has to pay more taxes,” Hollander said. 

Hollander cited that Harvard Square had changed from when he was in college, with the added presence of larger companies. Davis Square, he noted, appears to be undergoing a similar transition in his view.

“When I went to college, the center of Harvard Square was really cool, and there were all these interesting shops and stores at that core center. Now, there’s a bank on every corner of the center of Harvard Square,” Hollander said. “It’s much more of a place where big companies are looking to make investments to try to get solid returns, and so that’s what Davis Square has become.” 

While the renovations could change the culture that many Tufts students value in Davis Square, Hollander cited that there are many other commercial centers in the area such as Teele Square and Ball Square.

“I would not shed too many tears,” Hollander said. “I think, it’s, of course, hard for Tufts students that maybe came here because Davis Square is this cool, hip place, but now with the Green line that will eventually come … there are all kinds of other places in this region that are now easily accessible to Tufts students that have the same kinds of independently owned businesses.” 

That said, Hollander says that the displacement of these businesses at Davis Square is likely to be permanent in light of nationwide economic trends. 

“It’s going to be hard for independent businesses to come back,” Hollander said. “The way that lending works is [that big national corporations] can get lower rates on their loans if they bring in national chains.”

With this renovation project, Hollander noted that homeowners and renters will likely be affected differently by this project as well. Homeowners tend to fare well because these projects often improve the real estate market. However, renters are likely to suffer from the rising prices and might be forced to move, Hollander added. 

“For renters, it’s a different story,” Hollander said. “Rents are really high now, and they’re not likely to go down anytime soon, so all of this continued investment — national and international capital — into the neighborhood is making it much harder for renters to be able to stay there.” 

Somerville residents Andrea and Carl Axelrod live just a block from Davis Square. They have lived in Somerville for about five years and have enjoyed living in the area. 

“We had rented in Cambridge for eight years, and I loved it there. I had never even come out to Somerville and Davis Square,” Andrea Axelrod said. “When we found this place, it was like a whole new world so I have really embraced it and really have enjoyed it, and it’s unique and I would like to have it maintain its uniqueness.” 

Carl Axelrod also sees Davis Square as being special because it is easily accessible and has a wide variety of local businesses. 

“I think the variety of restaurants … the number of different places to grab a cup of coffee,” Carl Axelrod said. “It’s a neighborhood that is easily walkable.”

Carl Axelrod said he will be disappointed to lose the local businesses with the Scape Development project, and he is concerned about what the years of construction will look like for the businesses being displaced. 

“My main concern is with the retail establishments — that even if there’s an effort to bring them back, what’s going to happen in the year or two years of construction?” Carl Axelrod said. “They’ve got to exist in some fashion, they just can’t go out of business for what will be, I’m sure, at least a year and a half to two years. So, I assume Davis Square is going to lose [certain] businesses.” 

The Axelrods shared that they appreciate the personal feel of the local businesses in Davis Square and believe they contribute deeply to what  makes the area a special place. They will particularly miss the pizza at Dragon Pizza and the baked goods from When Pigs Fly. 

“There’s just something very personal, if you can go into stores and sort of see the people that own a place,” Andrea Axelrod said. “My concern is that the uniqueness begins to become not so unique. I mean look at what’s happened in Harvard Square.”

Tufts senior Katya Silverman-Stoloff has been working at Dragon Pizza since July and has enjoyed working at the restaurant. She has found that working there helps remind her of the presence of the surrounding Somerville community.

“I really like the energy, it’s very casual [and] informal and I like my coworkers,” Silverman-Stoloff said. “It’s mostly local people … who just live in the area, and I like being connected to the Somerville community outside of just existing in this Tufts bubble.” 

Silverman-Stoloff shared that she has discussed the renovation project with her boss at Dragon Pizza. Her understanding has been that the impacted businesses have known about the future displacement for a few years, but they had not known exactly when it would happen.  

“It’s all fairly vague,” she said. “I think my boss doesn’t know that much so it’s hard for him to relay information to us.”

Since there has not been real movement with the project yet, Dragon Pizza has been continuing with business as usual, although they will have to find a new location at some point. Furthermore, despite the future displacement, Silverman-Stoloff said that Dragon Pizza currently plans on expanding into the space next door. The expansion would allow for more seating space for restaurant diners, provide a pick-up space for food delivery apps and function as an event rental space. 

“I think [my boss is] eager to expand the business, and so he’s moving forward regardless of the renovation,” Silverman-Stoloff said. 

Overall, Silverman-Stoloff is concerned that the renovation project will impact the small town feel of Davis Square in the future.

“I do feel sad because it reminds me of something that’s happening in my own town, which is they’re building these big apartment buildings right in the center of these small towns,” Silverman-Stoloff said. “I feel like it loses this feel of small communities.”

Even as the presence of a large lab building could change the feel of Davis Square, Silverman-Stoloff thinks that Tufts students can help preserve the essence of Davis Square and its spirit. 

“I think part of what makes Davis Square special is its energy and the existence of young people there and the desire for people to want to keep it very lively and very happening,” she said. 

Silverman-Stoloff sees Davis Square as unique because it has the feel of both a bustling center and a small town, and she hopes that this spirit will be preserved in the future. 

“[Davis Square] feels very lively and energetic, but at the same time kind of feels like a small town,” Silverman-Stoloff said. “I feel like few towns that I have been to have both of these qualities of feeling like there’s a lot happening, but also it feels very local and small [and] community-focused.” 

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