As skyrocketing real estate prices cause rents to soar, maintaining space for the arts in Somerville is increasingly difficult. Still, arts and recreation thrive in a recently developed non-industrial complex—located in a historically industrial space.
Along the abandoned B&M railroad line and within one of Somerville’s oldest industrial neighborhoods lies the Somernova business complex. It occupies several repurposed buildings that previously housed older manufacturing facilities, collectively known as the Ames Business Park. This 300,000-square-foot space once housed the former Ames Safety Envelope company that shuttered in 2010. It now includes several newer Somerville businesses, like Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, Artisan’s Asylum, Aeronaut Brewing Company, and the first Greentown Labs building off Park Street.
Brandon Wilson, who has served as the executive director of Somerville’s Historic Preservation Commission for two decades, refers to this stretch as Innovation Row. The zoning ordinance, adopted in December, has established this as a “Fabrication District” that supports the city’s creative economy, from individual artists to technology startups.
“It has been encouraging to see how … Somerville, especially under the Curtatone administration, has come to appreciate its older building stock and ways to preserve its architectural craftsmanship and contribution to the streetscape,” she says.
“The city’s always had these industrial spaces that have gone from manufacturing to the creative economy,” says Gregory Jenkins, executive director of the Somerville Arts Council.
Wilson says the project developed out of two needs: to find new uses for the city’s aging industrial spaces, and to forge and maintain spaces for the arts.
“So many spaces in the city have these interesting, cool buildings along the railroad tracks,” she says. “I as a planner want to preserve those buildings, [but] they need to be profitable enough to pay the rents. You can do that by making them attractive features of the area.”
The project has been years in the making—a 2009 report released jointly by the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD) and the Somerville Arts Council calls for the rezoning of Union Square “from the perspective of artists and those seeking to create … space for arts-related uses.” The report pushed for the municipality to create studio space, demarcate a new Union Square Arts Overlay District and establish mandated arts spaces in transit-oriented districts close to Green Line stops.
An initial proposal to turn the complex into housing set the arts community on edge. Wilson credits Bill Shea, the CEO of the Ames Safety Envelope company, with renting out the space and overseeing its re-leasing. He was willing to take a chance on renting Ames’ surplus space to a “bunch of unknown and young entrepreneurs,” Wilson says, putting the Somernova area on the map.
“If it wasn’t for somebody with his vision and willingness to try things, none of this would have happened,” Wilson says. “It was his willingness to open it up to others that was the Ames tradition. Sadly, he passed away before he was able to see how successfully his risk turned out.”
Wilson also credits Collin Yip, managing director of Rafi Properties, the developer that bought the property in 2018, with remaining sensitive to the flavor of the area’s innovative manufacturing heritage. She says Yip wants to continue its sense of place and community partnership.
Jenkins says that growth requires collaboration between developers and the community.
“Can the developer build out space that attracts the creative community? That’s what the city’s seeking to [help accomplish]. The verdict’s still out—it’s going to take the focus and drive of the developer and the community,” he says.
The needs of Somerville’s arts community are consistent historically, Jenkins explains, adding that artists are attracted to adaptive and cheap spaces with reasonable rents.
“They’re looking for stability and affordability,” he says. “That’s what attracts the creative community. I don’t think that’s changed in 20 to 40 years.”
Lars Hasselblad Torres, executive director of Artisan’s Asylum, an artists’ community and makerspace, says his organization moved to Somernova in 2012 and has been expanding throughout that space for eight years, originally taking up an area of 10,000 square feet. The organization now occupies 40,000 square feet.
A collaborative spirit infuses the building, influencing collaborations between Artisan’s Asylum and the other businesses housed there, as well as with Rafi Properties.
“We definitely do a lot of cross-pollination,” he says. “A lot of what you see when you go to Somernova are pieces of art that have been made by makers at the Artisan’s Asylum. Artisan’s Asylum [ensures] that information and opportunities are flowing.”
Artisan’s Asylum also works with the startups housed in Greentown Labs to build out their hardware and physical prototypes.
Torres applauds the unique features of the Ames envelope factory’s industrial architecture.
“Being in a one-level property makes life extremely easy for artists to move their material into our shops to build what they want to build it into. Being on a single-level building, at that scale, is tremendously unique and enormously valuable,” he says.
Artisan’s Asylum has taken advantage of its location through partnerships with Union Square Main Streets to participate in community-wide events—everything from the annual Fluff Festival to various open studios—and through collaboration with Mayor Joe Curtatone’s office and the Office of Economic Development.
Jenkins explains that despite the creative economy’s current flourishing in Union Square, its long-term security is not certain. Rents might increase, pushing artists away from the area. Finding ways to protect these spaces after they are created is key.
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This article has been updated to clarify that Collin Yip bought the property, not Rafi Properties.