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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, October 3, 2023

As private dorm developer moves in, Davis Square businesses pushed out, Burren safe

Scape, a British private land developer, purchased the block of buildings that includes the Burren. The building is pictured on Sept. 13.

Scape, a British company that builds private, for-profit dorms, acquired half a block of Davis Square real estate running along Elm Street and Grove Street over the summer. The company has told many business owners they will need to relocate in a year and a half, though the owner of the Burren says the popular pub will be unaffected.

Documents from the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds show that the landlords of 231–249 Elm St., 6–8 Grove St. and 12 Grove St. leased the properties to Scape Davis Square LLC, a subsidiary of Scape North America, on June 19.

In a statement, Andrew Flynn, the CEO of Scape North America, hinted that a dorm project could be in the works for Davis Square.

“We remain excited to bring an innovative approach to urban living in Boston and beyond,” Flynn said. “As we look to potential projects in Somerville, we are fully committed to a transparent process that engages all stakeholders as we move forward on specific plans over the next few years."

However, the CEO said that the company was primarily focused on its project to build a dorm in the Fenway, but added that Scape was eager to work with residents, community leaders and the City of Somerville on the Davis Square project.

Any potential project is still in its earliest stages and it is not even clear at this point whether the development will be exclusively student housing, according to George Proakis, the executive director of Somerville’s office of strategic planning and development.

Scape has not yet filed a development application with the city, Proakis wrote in an email to the Daily. He did confirm that many businesses would have to relocate for construction but that Scape was working with the affected owners to assure they could return after the project’s completion.

Proakis continued that the project would be subject to the entire community process before it would even be eligible to apply for zoning permits.

Several business owners on the affected storefronts expressed various degrees of confusion about their fate, saying that they had little information and were still figuring out what they were going to do. 

Todd Xiao, a manager at Kung Fu Tea, was still unsure about what would happen with the Scape development, but he said he was not surprised there was demand for development in Davis Square.

However, Antonio Reyes, working the register at Dragon Pizza Tuesday afternoon, was up to speed. He said the landlord told the team that the pizzeria would have to move out in a year and a half, a timeline echoed at other businesses.

“It’s gonna be kind of a struggle, we only opened a year ago,” Reyes said. “We were growing and then we’ve got to shut it down.”

The Burren, the Irish pub on the far north side of the purchase and a favorite among Tufts students, will be spared from relocation, according to Tommy McCarthy, the owner.

McCarthy said he had spoken to representatives of Scape and reached an agreement that The Burren can stay open during any construction, which he was optimistic would be only a few months.

“I do feel badly for the rest of the tenants on the block, but they’ve been invited to come back once it’s done,” he said.

McCarthy acknowledged that having a dorm full of students right next to his bar would not bad for business

Lance Davis, the Somerville City Council member for Ward 6, where the acquisition is located, said he has been working with Scape to schedule a community meeting in early October where the company will lay out its plans and alleviate any confusion among business owners and residents.

Davis said he is waiting to find out more about Scape’s vision before weighing in on the project, but that he would defend the city’s priorities laid out in Davis Square’s neighborhood plan over the summer. 

“If there is something that is proposed that is not consistent with the mission, the vision [and] the values we’ve heard from the community, that would raise a significant concern for me,” he said.

Davis wants to help owners ride out relocation when it occurs. He hopes to see a space developed in Somerville where businesses could set up shop during transition.

In contrast to Davis’ cautious approach, some Somerville residents have already made up their mind on Scape, and they are against the development.

Susan Fendell, a local resident, is circulating a petition highly critical of the development which calls for it to be subject to rigorous review. It has already garnered the signatures of 52 West Somervillians.

“The development will actually change the very nature of Davis Square,” Fendell said.

The relocations were chief among her concerns. Even though the businesses say Scape has offered to bring back the businesses back in after the end of construction, Fendell argued the likelihood that the stores will survive the move is low.

The height of the prospective development is also a concern for Fendell, who believes it will render the square gloomy and uniform.

She also says that the dorm would further divide students at Tufts and elsewhere between the haves and have-nots.

“All the wealthier students will be gathered in this luxury housing,” she said. “The purpose of college is to open minds and expose people to new things, and by segregating classes, the project does just the opposite.”

Scape and its business model are no strangers to controversy. 

Private dorms are a growing trend nationwide, marketing themselves to wealthy students and sometimes including spin studios and rooftop pools. Scape advertises its dorms in the UK and Australia with photos of sleek, modern interiors, personal kitchens and beds with heat controls.

The company has declared Boston and its burgeoning student population its first American foothold. 

However, the first U.S. development it announced, a 533-bed dorm in the Fenway, caught backlash from community organizations resisting the further encroachment of student housing into their neighborhood, the Boston Globe reported. The Boston Planning & Development Agency torpedoed the company’s original plan and required them to include housing for residents in the project, the article reported.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said in a statement on July 31 that he was committed to holding Scape to the community process.

“It’s too early to know if this could be right for Davis Square,” he said.