“The building’s a little bit baffling in terms of how they built it and why,” Matthew Boyes-Watson says of the former carport that will introduce 28 businesses into Union Square this spring. He chuckles, recalling the discovery that many wall angles are slightly off. “Nothing is square, it’s a nightmare.”
He and fellow owner and manager Zachary Baum have stood by the bizarre building that sits forgotten in the middle of a block, bearing with it through missing foundations, straddled zoning, and 8,000 extra radiators.
When Bow Market opens this spring—planned for May 12—the complex will revitalize the “vaguely pentagonal” structure and offer up tiny storefronts for budding businesses. Many of the spaces clock in at around 160 square feet.
From nabbing the renowned Comedy Studio from Harvard Square to providing brick-and-mortar spaces for beloved local pop-ups, the marketplace bears the opportunity to fundamentally change the way that people conceive of and patronize the already vibrant Union Square.
The Bow Market building was constructed in 1920 as a carport for neighborhood residents. The individual garage doors were later filled in with cinder blocks and the building became a place for furniture storage.
“It’s always sort of been this found space in the middle of the block,” Baum says.
Boyes-Watson had admired market setups when he traveled abroad, particularly to Morocco, and toyed with the idea of opening one in the Boston area. He even considered launching a marketplace project in Central Square five years ago.
The Bow Market building seemed to lend itself to a series of garage-sized shops and restaurants with a seating courtyard in the central open space. But unlike in other countries, the marketplace concept is unusual here. Boyes-Watson and Baum had many, many conversations to get the endeavor off the ground.
First, the neighbors. Bow Market is set in the middle of a roughly triangular block of land between Bow Street and Somerville Avenue. Visitors will have to walk past people’s homes to get into the complex. Baum and Boyes-Watson have involved those residents throughout the process, and say that they have been supportive of the complex.
The next step was to seek out potential vendors in order to prove to banks that the project was viable. Finding vendors was a winding process rife with referrals, wandering around farmers markets and pop-ups, and roaming through Instagram accounts.
“That has been a total trip,” Baum says of the process, noting how generous community members and restaurant owners were in connecting them with potential vendors.
The building lies on top of two different zones, which meant the owners had to face extra obstacles during the year they spent rezoning the property.
But the city was helpful in the rezoning process, they say, working with them to develop a zoning package that incorporates the different types of operations. The package is flexible, letting Bow Market operate within the scope of several zoning uses and allowing the space to be somewhat fluid.
“The city is so interested in seeing things like this happen that they have been extremely supportive and extremely helpful,” Baum says.
“The city was fantastic. They allowed this project to exist by granting us the package of zoning that allowed for flexibility,” Boyes-Watson adds. “Things take a really long time, whenever you’re trying to do something that people haven’t seen before … The complexity is why people don’t do this.”
The building has offered Baum and Boyes-Watson plenty of surprises since they broke ground last April. They uncovered an oil tank, which they had to dig up and remove. They discovered, despite their crossed fingers, that the building didn’t actually have a foundation. They had to handle moving thousands of radiators that were left in the building.
But there were more pleasant surprises as well, like when they tore up ugly, mustard carpeting and found a beautiful wood floor underneath.
Their vision for the complex has evolved along the way. They were sure that a commissary kitchen for the vendors would be a crucial part of the marketplace, but that larger space will now be home to a brewery complete with its own beer garden. What they thought would be an indoor market with stalls is now slated to be The Comedy Studio’s new home. They ended up using a bigger space in the back of the building as an event area for vendors to rent out for larger events, and reserved two of the vendor spaces for pop-up tenants.
Originally, Boyes-Watson and Baum thought that the top floor of the complex would be for artist studios, and even put in skylights to make the space appealing for them. But that idea got scrapped when they saw how much interest there was from vendors.
The owners explain that shoppers tend to find it confusing to navigate to a second-floor vendor in a closed building, so a second-floor storefront is unusual and typically considered undesirable. But the structure’s open courtyard and exposed walkway are intended to alleviate that concern. “The first door you walk in is always the door to a store,” Baum explains.
The central courtyard, which will be full of seating and heated during some of the cooler months, is also victim to the property’s quirks. The land sloped 18 inches from end to end, which Baum and Boyes-Watson made into a non-gradual increase. They used a piece of history to handle the height change, creating a seating wall made of granite from the Longfellow Bridge.
The choice reflects the owners’ desire to root Bow Market in its surrounding community. They point out with excitement that you can see the Prospect Hill Tower from the complex’s second floor.
“It’s a huge part of the history here, obviously, and also I think the identity of Union Square, as being associated with the monument and the hill,” Baum says. “It’s a cool reminder of where we are.”
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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Reena Karasin is the editor-in-chief at Scout Somerville and Scout Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter @reenakarasin.