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3 MIN

Neighbourhood Watch: Greater Boston's Assembly Row

Insta-community lures visitors with outlet stores and employers with office space. Toss in some yoga, and will a real community ensue?

Just north of Boston, on the banks of the Mystic River in Somerville, the core of a massive new neighbourhood is rising, one whose most prominent resident at the moment is a six-metre-tall (20 foot) giraffe built entirely of Lego bricks.

Named Tessie (as a nod to the Red Sox rallying song), the long-lashed giraffe marks the entrance to a Legoland Discovery centre, a major anchor for a neighbourhood that ultimately aims to become much more than a tourist attraction. Called Assembly Row, the pedestrian-friendly development is an unusually dense and varied mix of entertainment, shopping, dining, office and living space on what had been a long-dormant industrial site.

At present, “the Row” consists of four large blocks encompassing the Lego centre, a 12-screen AMC movie theater, dozens of name-brand outlet stores, bars and restaurants, a LEED-certified office building housing a handful of high-tech companies, and about 450 upper-storey apartments. Another office building soon to be occupied by Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest healthcare provider, is under construction, as is a boutique hotel, another 500 apartments and 120 condos.

The Row is playing well with Bostonians, college students and tourists alike, especially on weekends. The Boston Globe Magazine named Assembly Row one of 2015’s most notable innovations in real estate. And readers of Curbed Boston chose it as Greater Boston’s neighbourhood of the year.

The high concentration of outlet stores, which include Nike, Saks Off Fifth, Le Creuset and J. Crew, is a novel attraction for Boston – the closest outlet centre is, perhaps surprisingly, at least an hour away.

And the ample array of restaurants, many with appealing riverfront patios with cushy furniture, keep shoppers hanging around long after their buying binges are over. Offerings range from the family-friendly Bloomin’ Onion fare of Outback steakhouse to the more creative cuisine of the homegrown River Bar (corned beef and cabbage dumplings, anyone?) to – this being Boston – a massive dose of sports at the 90-screen bar Tony C’s, named for Red Sox legend Tony Conigliaro. Another Boston staple: a Legal Seafoods restaurant, this one designed with a steel-and-concrete acknowledgement of the location’s industrial past.

By the time it is completed, the Row, taking up roughly 66 acres and costing an anticipated US$1.2 billion, is expected to be home to some 3,500 residents and 8,000 office workers. At this stage, however, visiting the Row still feels much like being on a movie set rising in a parking lot. Its pristine streets and double-wide sidewalks bump up against noisy, walled-off construction sites. Neighbourhood staples like a food market and drugstore are noticeably absent.

Give it time, says Ben Sommer, the economic development assistant for the city of Somerville. The city and the developer, Federal Realty Investment Trust, of Rockville, Md., are banking on the site’s close proximity to the booming R&D centres of Boston-Cambridge, and its easy access to mass transit and the underutilized riverfront to attract the critical mass of people who will add vibrancy to what are now fairly sterile streets.

“A neighbourhood is not just the buildings,” Sommer says, “but the people who make it what it is.”

Earlier attempts at revitalization of the site, once occupied by a Ford Motor Co. plant, had fizzled. Ikea proposed one of its massive stores there in the late 1990s, but smart-growth-minded citizens balked at an influx of big-box development, Sommer says.

What finally unlocked the potential for a full-blown, live-work-play scenario was the construction of a new MBTA subway stop directly at the site, a US$30-million undertaking paid for with a combination of state, federal and developer funds. Assembly Station, just three stops up from Boston’s North End on the Orange Line, opened in 2014 – the first new MBTA stop in at least 25 years.

When Partners HealthCare moves into its new, 750,000-square-foot offices this summer, some 4,700 workers will join the Assembly Row mix. In the meantime, Federal Realty is welcoming in the local community with free events like Saturday morning yoga in the six-acre riverfront park, says Sarah Lekatsas, the project’s marketing manager. And come September 10, the park will fill with artisans and bands, part of the Row’s annual Riverfest celebration, culminating in a fireworks display over the mighty Mystic.

Published Wednesday, May 25th 2016

Header image credit: x

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