By Grant Welker Projects Reporter, Boston Business Journal
Gateway cities across Massachusetts are accustomed to looking for silver linings or overcoming intractable challenges. Celebrating good news is a lot more rare. But the latest Census data has changed that.
Four of Boston’s inner suburbs — Lynn, Everett, Chelsea and Revere — saw ballooning population growth over the past decade. Other gateway cities — those that are traditionally among the state’s most economically troubled — grew as well, from Brockton to Fall River to Lawrence.
Gateway cities, a term that encompasses the state’s former manufacturing hubs, today often boast some of the highest diversity rates in the state, along with some of the highest poverty rates.
In the 2010s, 14 of the top 20 cities by population growth in Massachusetts were gateway cities — far surpassing projections and expectations. Only Boston and Cambridge beat them out.
It’s a stark reversal for communities where populations have previously shrank or stayed stagnant. Many seem to have benefitted from the region’s thriving economy, as well as its pricey housing, which has brought more and more people to places that are cheaper than other communities within commuting distance to Boston.
Mike Procopio, whose construction and development firm, Procopio Cos., has built four projects in Lynn, with a fifth on the way and another in Haverhill, said that many newcomers are viewing Gateway cities with a fresh perspective.
“I have hundreds of tenants that would support this thesis,” Procopio said.
For cities used to touting even small achievements — like a new storefronts or economic development grants — the population gains are a new bragging right.
While Somerville may attract a lot of buzz, for instance, it’s Chelsea — which is half of Somerville’s size — that added more residents last decade. Then there’s Revere, which grew by 20%, more than any other city in the Bay State.
“Obviously, we’re excited that Revere is now the fastest-growing city in the commonwealth,” Mayor Brian Arrigo said.
A few gateway cities passed the 100,000-person milestone, including Brockton, Lynn, New Bedford and Quincy. Worcester surpassed 200,000 for the first time in generations.
In the Merrimack Valley, Lawrence, which suffered headlines about a state school takeover and a corrupt mayor, nonetheless saw its population grow by almost 17% in the 2010s. And Lowell, which once had blocks of decaying empty mill buildings lining its canals, has found new uses for millions of square feet of that space in recent decades, much of it for apartments. It now has a population of more than 115,000.
The success of gateway cities is not universal, particularly beyond the economic engine of Greater Boston. Springfield has had an essentially flat population for 40 years, while just to its north, Holyoke lost 4% of its population over the past decade and 14% since 1980.
But the rebound in some cities is obvious. In Quincy, swaths of the downtown have been remade, including the 15-story One Chestnut Place apartment tower and the West of Chestnut apartment buildings. Likewise, much of the area along Revere Beach near the Wonderland MBTA station is seeing new residences and restaurants.
Lynn, which added almost 11,000 people to the city last decade, saw a 10-story apartment tower with a rooftop pool called Caldwell open downtown earlier this year. The first of more than 300 units are opening at Breakwater, a few blocks away on the waterfront.
“We’re going back to probably 60, 70, 80 years when the city was at one point over 100,000 and for decades we haven’t been,” Lynn Mayor Tom McGee said. “So it’s a very positive milestone.”
McGee said the city, which has gained attention for its downtown murals, hopes to continue the progress with new amenities including a bike path and potential boat connections to Boston.
Opportunities existed for growth
Gateway cities’ challenges — such as poverty, low educational attainment and low-performing school districts — haven’t gone away.
But a few factors have worked in their favor: They’re affordable, and in some cases, lower-density industrial tracts are finding higher use with residential buildings. Many also had high residential vacancies at the start of the last decade, allowing plenty of room for growth with the existing housing stock. And almost all gateway cities already have development-friendly practices, such as allowing multi-family development without needing special approval or mixed-use zoning, according to Boston Indicators, an arm of the Boston Foundation that tracks such policies.
Arrigo attributed Revere’s population growth to Revere Beach, which is on the Blue Line, close to Logan Airport and boasts a diverse school district. He’s found particular pride in new development along the beach and Shirley Avenue, and looks forward to a redevelopment of Suffolk Downs expected to begin in coming months, as well as a potential redevelopment of the former Wonderland dog racing track behind it.
MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development arm, has made gateway cities a priority in recent years, through programs like the Transformative Development Initiative, which aims to spur new growth in many of the gateway cities through direct financial development, technical assistance and other aid.
Dan Rivera, the former mayor of Lawrence who now leads the quasi-public state agency, said his staff works with officials in each city to help improve neighborhoods, even if only a block or two at a time. He said MassDevelopment isn’t necessarily aiming to score a home run with every deal. “Let’s just get on base, man,” he said.
Not everyone believes the growth of gateway cities is all good. Ben Forman, research director at think tank MassINC, called the notion that gateway cities are necessarily doing well because they’ve added residents “premature.” Cities’ household economic data isn’t yet available for 2020, he said, and many residents might have moved temporarily last year to places where living was cheaper.
Forman added that the diverse populations in those cities may have more difficulty accessing capital, and worse public transit options.
“We should be really cautious about celebrating these Census numbers when there’s still a lot of work to be done in regional economies,” Forman said.
Still, gateway cities added population quicker than experts projected. The Donahue Institute at UMass Amherst didn’t forecast Brockton to hit 100,000 people for more than another two decades. In Fall River’s case, the institute projected the population would fall instead of rising.
Susan Strate, the senior program manager for the population estimates program for the Donahue Institute, attributed the unexpectedly high gateway city population numbers to a few factors.
For one, urban and suburban areas nationally grew faster than their rural counterparts, Strate said, and the 26 gateway cities in Massachusetts account for 15 of the 25 most populous communities statewide. Strate also saw increasing occupancy rates, a well-prepared Census effort that managed to capture a high rate of people and gateway cities’ benefit of having more diverse households, which also tend to skew younger.
Annual estimates are typically based on previous years’ numbers, while dramatic changes can take place from one year to the next, Strate said, especially in migration and immigration.
“Understanding what recent trends would lead to is nonetheless useful for planning and policy,” Strate said. “Population projections are better thought of as useful placeholders rather than predictions of the future.”