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Waste No More

Returning Life to an Unloved Place

Waste No More

An ecologically-degraded site in Boston's neighbor of Somerville became a mixed-use development where New Englanders can now enjoy a pedestrian-friendly environment thanks to the creative use of amenity strips, curb extensions, crosswalks with textural changes and paving patterns. Boston's Copley Wolff Design Group played a key role in converting a vacant Ford Motor assembly plant into the Assembly Row community by designing streetscapes, parks and other public spaces to complement various shopping and dining opportunities.

Abandoned and forgotten lands subsist in nearly every urban setting. Some are the result of negligent or absent owners. Others are deemed not economically viable for redevelopment due to age, chronic vacancies, undesirable locations, contamination by past activities from heavy industry, a combination of these factors and more.

But like finding and restoring a lost diamond ring that was concealed in the dirt, when one of these areas is located, and a shine put on it, the results can put a smile on the face of all who consider its transformation.

In Somerville, Massachusetts, a town northwest of Boston, one such unearthing was the grounds of a Ford Motor assembly plant, said to have had a hand in building the famously ill-fated Edsel.

Poisoned Terrain
According to John Copley, ASLA, cofounder and principal of Copley Wolff, the landscape architect firm that was part of the team in charge of the eventual polishing of what would become known as Assembly Row, remnants of chemicals from the manufacturing process lurked in the ground and had to be removed - a process that took years.

Ultimately, the city contracted with Federal Realty Investment Trust as the master developer of the site and they set up a special use district and collaborated to complete the process.

Initial Development Attempts
"In the 80s, it was a strip mall and then left for dead on the westside of the property," asserts Andrew Arbaugh, another principal at Copley Wolff.

Waste No More

Large reclaimed steel trusses from the Ford assembly plant are included in the design as gateways to the two parks located at opposite ends of the development. These were just part of the special detailing for the project to give it a historic sense of place, added to the design by Paula Rees' placemaking design firm Foreseer.

Waste No More

In four years' time, Copley Wolff's work included a complete streetscape plan as well as the design of a public plaza/park, two parks, and roof deck amenity spaces, one including a pool.

Most of this was retail, and then in time restaurants moved in along with some commercial and residential.

"But this one particular corner was just really isolated and empty," Arbaugh remembers. "And there is a ton of demand for residential so they chose Assembly Row to provide some of that."

Branching Out
The work on the street grid construction for the new development proceeded in two phases.

"We were contracted for phase one and they continued on with us for phase two," says Copley. "And we have also been involved in some of the other developments in each of the phases. They like the team that they have so we have just been continuing on with the team."

The first phase included a major park, Baxter Riverfront Park, and the establishment of the first two or three commercial blocks as well as a little plaza area.

The second phase pushed the street grid out toward a Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority station. These streetscapes feature ornamental plantings, shade trees, sitting areas, a public plaza, a linear park and Somerville's first woonerf street, which offers shared space for a variety of uses.

Waste No More

The public plaza, located between the first two blocks of the development, encompasses materials such as wood decking and benches, Adirondack chairs made from recycled plastic, softer furnishings, pavers and seat walls of Boston blend fieldstone which makes for a fully accessible, functioning space. Ornamental planters, low-maintenance evergreen and seasonal plants, artwork and outdoor heaters complete the space. To enhance usability of the area in all seasons, large canopy trees such as elm, red oak or red maple are located at seating areas to provide shade.

Waste No More

Waste No More

As part of the second phase, Copley Wolff designed a linear park on the southern end of the development where the street splits. The site includes plantings, canopy trees, interesting paving patterns using materials from Unilock, seat walls, lighting, ipe decking, and a distinctive linear water feature in which water flows across the face of what looks like a bench with flat granite stones on top (bottom, right).

"It has different lives depending on use so they can close it down and the lower floor retail spills out," Arbaugh shares. "And they have events or it can function as a drive space during other parts of the day."

"The streetscape embraces the Complete Streets concept, allowing pedestrians, bikes, and automobiles to share the space with equal priority," cites Danna Day, principal and director of marketing of the design firm. "Scale, color, and seasonal variation create atmosphere and enhance the spatial experience."

Building Up
On many of the blocks, the first floor is retail and the upper floors are commercial or residential. And then there are the amenity spaces designed by Copely Wolff.

The most recent addition includes an observation tower on the top floor with outdoor seating and expansive views back to Boston. A more generous semiprivate 3rd floor includes a pool, pergola, outdoor seating area, TVs, and fireplaces. The team even collaborated with Recover Green Roof, to provide "a lot of planting."

"Copley Wolff's understanding of accessibility, human scale, and user needs is reflected in the landscape, which provides numerous opportunities for social interactions that make the area inviting, interesting, and aesthetically pleasing," states Day.

Giving Assembly Row even more character was the charge of Paula Rees of Foreseer, who lent her placemaking talents to the project.

Waste No More

Waste No More

Granite was salvaged from old seawalls on the site and used as seat walls when elevated and as pavement bands when flush to the surface. The tall structures are fire caldrons with famous quotations about fire and water (inset).

Waste No More

The lighting specified included city standard street lighting, which the area hadn't had before, festival lights in a couple of different locations, bollards and Christmas lights that were strung on the trees (so electricity had to be designated for each pit). Landscape Structures supplied benches and waste receptacles.

Waste No More

In general, each street has its own tree type - honey locust, elm, red oak or red maple. Instead of just digging pits and filling them with planting soil, then relying on the surrounding native soils, which could contain rubble and other detrimental materials to provide for the expanding root systems, a 2nd generation soil mix was specified to be installed under all the paved areas surrounding the trees. This new soil can be compacted to 90-99%, which is what the pavement needs to be supported but it is still porous and loose enough to allow roots to penetrate and find water, air and nutrients. One thousand cubic feet per tree is the preferred amount according to the landscape architecture team. The metal structures seen here are simple gas heaters for the colder seasons.

"She is really good at interpreting the site and finding artifacts or making artifacts that she embeds in the architecture," Copley relates. "It is another layer of interpretation that overlays the design and grounds it in this locale. A lot of the detailing and fun stuff that she found are related to the old assembly plant."

Vitality Renewed
"After years of planning and vision, the site has been transformed into a vibrant and active center of business and culture," sums up Day. "Copley Wolff Design Group established an overall landscape plan that links together all elements of Assembly Row with user-friendly and accessible common spaces."

Copley adds, "It is a good model of how you integrate a new mixed-use, higher density development in an existing urban fabric and really create a new place that hasn't been there in a long time."

"We have taken a space that was completely forgotten, that nobody had any reason to go to at all, and turned it into this major destination," declares Arbaugh. "It is still in its early phases but you can see the projection forward that a community is going to grow up and make this a place that they work and they live - make this place a home."

Team List
Owner - Federal Realty Investment Trust
Landscape Architect - Copley Wolff Design Group, Inc.
Civil - VHB
Master Planning - Street-Works Studio

As seen in LASN magazine, August 2019.

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November 22, 2019, 12:44 am PDT

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