Why Somerville's Being Left Behind

(Somerville Journal, submitted 2/5/06 and slightly edited 2/6/06 for publication 2/9/06)

February 6, 2006

Editor, Somerville Journal

Dear Editor:

This letter is with regard to Jane Bestor's excellent 2/2/06 letter "Take stock of Assembly policies." The City's plans for Assembly Square do not take advantage of the office occupancy trend she cited, which included 190,000 square feet recently leased at the Schraft Center next to Assembly Square. On the contrary, they promote losing propositions: big-box retail, which is low in tax revenue, high in traffic generation, and discourages better development; and residential development, which would be a net revenue loser due to the excess cost of city services even if the market were there, which it isn't. I refer you to the 2/4/06 Boston Globe article "Cooling real estate market pulls welcome mat for new agents," which pointed out, "today, there's one buyer for every five or 10 houses."

The office market rebound cited in Jane Bestor's letter was inevitable. Because of Boston's matchless university and technology base, the long-term trend has always been upward. Between 1980 and 2000, cities around Somerville built 100 million square feet of high-tax-revenue office space. Meanwhile, Somerville was pinning its hopes on short-term quick fixes like the Assembly Square Mall, now bankrupt, and on Circuit City and Home Depot, both big-box stores. Somerville was left behind then, and it is being left behind now.

Why did Somerville get left behind this time? Two reasons come to mind. First, the old Somerville power elite seemed to take the developers' claims about the potential of Assembly Square as whole and unbiased truth, even though every word out of the developers' mouths was part of their marketing pitch, intended to advance their corporate agenda. Second, the elite seemed to view detailed, factual, and rationally-presented objections from Somerville citizens to the developers' claims as a threat to the elite's power and privilege, rather than as credible input to an ongoing, strongly-supported planning process with enforcement teeth.

Perhaps the old Somerville power elite, having gone public early in support of the developers, felt that to adapt to new information and change course would be to show weakness. If so, they had it backward. An unwillingness to accept input from outsiders is well known in the business world. It even has a name: Not Invented Here (NIH). In this fast-moving twenty-first century, businesses - and cities -- that indulge in NIH for too long have a tendency to go bankrupt.

David Dahlbacka
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