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Mayor Joe Curtatone on Keeping Somerville Quirky, Affordable

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Here's the latest installment of Bates By the Numbers, a weekly feature by Boston real estate agent David Bates that drills down into the Hub's housing market to uncover those trends and people you would not otherwise notice. Follow him on Twitter and check out his ebook, Context: Nine Key Condo Markets, 2.0.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone knows how to raise expectations, to collect and use data, and perhaps most importantly, how to play the long game. A video describing the mayor's accomplishments and his unusual relationship with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government notes that his leadership changed the relationship between people who live there and their City Hall, turning "the armpit of New England" into a place "where every 29-year-old wants to live." Under Curtatone's leadership, Somerville has been distinguished as "the best-run city in Massachusetts" and a winner of an All America City award. Last week, the mayor spent a few moments with me discussing Somerville.

Please describe Somerville for someone who might not be familiar with it?
Well, Somerville is a very diverse community. We speak 52 languages in our neighborhood schools. We are very densely populated… about 78,000 people in 4.1 square miles. It's always been a very blue-collar town. It was built traditionally with many manufacturing workers or industrial workers, many immigrants coming here. Our neighborhoods in the past were defined by transit, which all changed around mid-century.

What can you tell me about the Green Line extension?
That has been the result more than a quarter century of continued advocacy and activism by the community. [It] will help fill some pretty long-term, community-based value goals of creating a net of 30,000 new jobs; creating 125 additional acres of open space; of creating almost 10,000 additional units of housing, of which a significant portion will be permanently affordable… Only 15 percent of the City of Somerville was within a half-mile walking or biking distance of a transit station. With the full extension of the Green Line and the Orange Line, that will change to 85 percent.

Do you think the Green Line extension will raise property values to the point that it causes a housing crisis?
We have a housing crisis in this region today, well before the Green Line ever coming. … This needs to be the No. 1 priority for the region. If we want to be economically viable and competitive for the future, we cannot push out the middle-class. We need to have our young talent that is here now have the ability to stay here and to work here and to raise their families here. … [The solution for this crisis] needs a multi-tiered approach not just by Somerville and Boston, but by the entire region

What can you tell me about Assembly Row?
The Assembly Row creates a sustainable new neighborhood which leverages our natural resource, the Mystic River, which leverages the investment in transit, in infrastructure and follows the tenet of smart growth and transit-oriented development—which allows us to build to the greatest density of the site. That contributes to a long-term vision and planning investment toward a sustainable and growing economy; and the Assembly Square and Assembly Row project is really almost two decades in the making.

Can you talk about the happiness survey you instituted?
I'm a big believer in the utilization of data to improve our operational effectiveness and how we deliver services. So we measure everything, from how well we are filling your pothole, to how we're doing on crime prevention in our schools … but also in an effort to measure our social progress, to understand how we can affect well-being. … It's also helped guide us in civic engagement and investing in that social capital. So it's been an incredible and powerful conduit for data to be testimonial, or corroboration of the policies of implementing, or the need to think about expanding present programming or future policy.

Is there a mission statement for your administration?
I tell everyone here to be abnormal. That's true. We're guided by one orienting value: everything we do has to be aligned with making Somerville the most exceptional place to live, work, play and raise a family. We don't want to be common; we want to be abnormal and uncommon. … And I want to charge everyone around me to embrace and be aligned with our orienting values and to take the risk to achieve them.

What are you seeing as a trend that will impact the future?
We are in the midst of the greatest demographic shift in this nation's history, when more and more people want to live in the urban core. … They want to engage in a lifestyle, community centers, where you can walk, bike, be connected by good public transit, to jobs, healthcare and academia; and we know in the world, by 2050, three-quarters of the world's population will live in the city, so the city that plans for that future will be the most successful.

What is your proudest accomplishment as mayor?
What makes my job easier is community and when everything you do is based on community values. It's not just me, its activist groups like Mothers Out Front with me and thousands of other people holding all of us accountable to think how better we can lead and how we can leave a better world for our children and our grandchildren. …There are a lot of people in the community who I exchange hugs with that are at the forefront of this fight for many, many years. … That's the proudest thing about being here, it's a community. … I'm so proud of what this city has done together and we're not finished. We got a long, long way to go.

What would you say to someone considering moving to Somerville?
It will be the best investment you can make for yourself, for your family. You'll love it here.
· Our Bates By the Numbers archive [Curbed Boston]