Somerville, Massachusetts, has always played the poor cousin to adjacent Cambridge, with its prestigious educational institutions—Harvard and MIT—and stately apartment buildings along the Charles River.
But that is beginning to change. With so many people priced out of Cambridge (according to Zillow, the median home price there approaches $1 million), Somerville is evolving into a hip venue attracting young professionals and developers alike. USQ is a massive undertaking in the city’s Union Square, whose Prospect Hill Monument claims to be the first place an early version of the American flag was raised during the Revolution.
A $2 billion, multi-phase project, USQ has acquired a dizzying array of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and real estate companies all working in unison. It is part of the city’s SomerVision 2040 initiative, which seeks to transform underused locations in the formerly blue-collar city, known in the early 20th century for glassmaking and brickmaking. Biotech and life sciences companies will be targeted as tenants, with the hope of eventually making USQ an employment center like nearby Kendall Square in Cambridge. The first phase of USQ broke ground on July 21, 2021, and is slated to be completed in early 2023.
USQ will eventually comprise 15 acres. Phase One is a hinge-shaped parcel bounded by Prospect Street and Somerville Avenue. The site will include a high-rise residential building and a lower-rise laboratory building, along with open green space.
USQ was conceived as a 20-year undertaking that at full buildout will transform Somerville, providing more than 5,000 new jobs. There are no fewer than four large real estate companies in a consortium overseeing and providing the capital for the project—Magellan Development Group; RAS Development LLC; Cypress Equity Investments, and USAA Real Estate.
“The plan is about value to the community and Somerville taking hold of its future,” said Greg Karczewski, president of US2, the legal entity that comprises the development consortium. “It’s about increasing jobs, affordable housing, and open space.” Karczewski, who moved from Chicago to oversee USQ, operates out of a storefront office facing directly on Union Square, which itself is a cornucopia of ethnic restaurants, trendy bars, and funky, offbeat retailers.
A key event that led to the development was the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) Green Line extension to Union Square. This project is coded “GLX” for short and is a $2.3 billion undertaking, with an expected completion sometime in spring of 2022. According to the MBTA’s website: “GLX will provide service in areas that historically did not have access to fast and reliable public transit. By supporting an increased ridership of more than 50,000 trips per day, this project will significantly reduce vehicle emissions on the road.”
“We put the tall tower adjacent to the Green Line platform,” said Eric Höweler, cofounder and partner of Höweler + Yoon, which did the initial master plan for the USQ Phase One—in collaboration with Stantec doing the overall project master plan. Höweler + Yoon was also design architect for the 25-story, 450-unit residential tower, which will have 20 percent of the units set aside affordable housing. Chicago-based bKL Architecture is the architect of record.
“We conceived the tower as the gateway to Somerville,” Höweler said. Sightlines are such that the Prospect Hill Monument is visible as one steps off the train. He described the tower as being shaped in plan “like a bowtie,” that is in quadrants with each quadrant gently torqued.
“We thought there should be a stepping down as one goes toward the low-rise density of Union Square,” he continued. “So we put the lab building closer to the square.”
“Our building steps down to the scale of Union Square,” agreed John Sullivan, partner and director of architecture for SGA, the lab building’s architect. The structure has stepped massing and anchors the corner of Prospect Street and Somerville Avenue. A jewel-like glazed corner acknowledges the diagonally adjacent Union Square Plaza, the neighborhood’s primary public space. “The glazed corner is a gesture acknowledging our relationship to the plaza,” Sullivan said.
The materiality of both the residential and lab building celebrates the industrial roots of Union Square. “The tower is the colors of Somerville,” Höweler added. “It’s a tapestry of brick red, beige, and other colors.” For the lab building, Sullivan said that, “We wanted to acknowledge the brickmaking, glassmaking, and metal works that are part of Union Square’s history.” The base of the building is brick, he explained, then you have interesting and varied use of glass and metal above.
Once fully completed, USQ will add 3.6 acres of green open space to Union Square. At present, the primary landscape design for the first phase has been done by Shauna Gillies-Smith of GROUND Inc., a landscape architecture firm based in Somerville, just a few blocks away from USQ.
Both the high-rise residential and lab buildings are aiming for LEED Gold certification. As a Transit Oriented Development, USQ is committed to new neighborhood mobility infrastructure that will create upgraded pedestrian routes, 1,750 bike parking spaces, improved bus stops, and mobility management programs.
“We’re taking a very holistic approach to transportation,” Karczewski said. “The primary question we’re asking is, ‘How do we move people away from automobiles?’”