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‘Tension is everywhere’: In Somerville, a tech cluster emerges with hope and worry

Around Boston, tech grows at the expense of artists and small businesses.

Somernova Innovation Hub at 12 Tyler St., Somerville.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Lars Hasselblad Torres loved Somerville’s Union Square. It was bohemian, communal, and a cheap place for Artisan’s Asylum — the nonprofit workshop for artisans and creators that he runs — to have grown up over the last decade. He loved strolling around Bow Market, getting to know the ladies at the Venezuelan restaurant Carolicious, and allowing the neighborhood’s artists to come, play, and create.

When it came time to renew the Asylum’s lease on 42,000 square feet of warehouse space it rented in an envelope plant off Somerville Avenue, Hasselblad Torres wanted a long-term deal. He said he offered to pay roughly $900,000 a year — a roughly 50 percent hike — but the building’s new owner, Boston-based developer Rafi Properties, didn’t show “much enthusiasm” for the offer. Later, a Rafi spokeperson said, the landlord offered a two-year extension at the Asylum’s existing, lower, rent, but said the Asylum was “not able to provide a guarantor” and could not move forward in negotiations.


Either way, talks fizzled. Artisan’s Asylum found a new home in Allston. And in December, The Engine, an MIT-backed venture capital fund with far deeper pockets, moved in to its old space. Hasselblad Torres said he carried no hard feelings toward The Engine, or the startups it nurtures. His ire is focused on something deeper: this new version of Boston, where big tech is growing so fast that it’s squeezing out artists and small businesses.

“When you look at this expansion of innovation,” he said in an interview, “if it comes at the expense of community artists… at what point does it actually become worth that cost?”

It’s a question that has played out in neighborhood after neighborhood across Greater Boston in recent years as historic levels of investment have flooded the city’s tech scene, promising good jobs and more customers to small businesses but often pricing out some of the institutions that make a place thrive.


From Fort Point to Jamaica Plain to once-forlorn pockets of Cambridge, enclaves of artists and low-cost creative endeavors have been transformed by soaring rents for both housing and commercial space. Now Somerville is in the throes of it.

“Tension is everywhere,” said Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Somerville’s Union Square Main Streets, in an interview. “The excitement and the optimism and the concerns and the worry — it’s all at the same time. It exists in the same moment, and in the same breath.”

Ask longtime Somerville residents, and they’ll note that Union Square has always been a hotbed of innovation. In its heyday, the Ames Safety Envelope Company employed upwards of 600 employees, churning out envelopes, boxes, and file folders from its 7.4-acre complex tucked between Somerville Avenue and the commuter rail tracks just west of Union Square.

Rebecca Henriksen used an abrasive chop saw to cut bracket pieces for K. Gretchen Greene Steel Sculpting at Artisan's Asylum in Somerville in 2014.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

As demand for envelopes diminished, Ames’s sales cratered, and in 2010 Ames was purchased by a records management company in Wisconsin. What remained was an attractive space for artisans and technology companies alike: 292,000 square feet of warehouses with reinforced floors and airy interiors, embedded in Union Square, with its vibrant culture and cheaper rents than nearby Kendall Square.

By 2014, much of the old factory was filled, the seeds of its rebirth planted. Tenants ranged from Greentown Labs, the country’s largest incubator of climate technology companies, to climbing gym Brooklyn Boulders ,to a trapeze school called Esh Circus Arts, to Artisan’s Asylum, where woodworkers, sculptors, and 3D printers fashioned all sorts of creations.


In 2018, Rafi paid $88 million to purchase the park, rebranding it the Somernova Innovation Hub. President Collin Yip told the Globe in 2018 that he hoped to keep the complex affordable to artisans, while acknowledging some turnover was likely.

“The better the companies here do,” he said at the time, “the better the whole area is going to do.”

In an interview last month, Yip said his organization has stayed true to fostering artists and community in Union Square. He pointed out that Rafi has supported local robotics competitions, allowed community artists into Artisan’s Aslyum’s space when it was empty, and fostered programs like Dojo, a nonprofit initiative that provides local youth space to gather.

But “art can’t just be on its own,” Yip said. As Somernova thinks about its future, and organizations like Artisan’s Aslyum question their part in it, it’s important, he said, to step back and realize that it takes a wide array of organizations in one place to spur innovation.

“What is the mission? [Is] it just low-cost artist space?” he said. “I think there’s got to be something more that we could do.”

Katie Rae, CEO of The Engine, said it is not “displacing anyone.” The old warehouse was sitting empty after Artisan’s Asylum moved out, and presented a rare opportunity for a group like hers, which is a venture capital fund that supports startups tackling issues like climate change through manufacturing and material sciences. They’re happy to be there, and are moving in their first portfolio company: Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a nuclear fusion startup that landed $1.8 billion in funding in December.


But it’s important, she acknowledged, to manage the tension between old and new, between courting business and keeping artists in place.

“This is up to the cities,” Rae said.

George Proakis agrees. The executive director of the Somerville mayor’s office of strategic planning and community development says finding ways for arts and tech companies to coexist is an important part of his job right now. He used to worry more about displacement from housing developers. Now, he said, “it’s all about tech and bio labs and all this other stuff.”

Proakis is working on a new city plan, called SomerVision 2040, that tries to create community-centered development and prevent displacement. A recent zoning overhaul requires that new buildings in Somerville set aside 5 percent of their space for community artisans, but Proakis says the region’s hot real estate market means this is a problem that Somerville, and other emerging tech hubs, will have to attack for years to come.

“Every group is worried that the one that can pay a little bit more is going to push them out,” he said.

Rosie Weinberg, of The Pinata Club, made pinatas at Artisan's Asylum in Somerville in 2014.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Still, that tech money has benefits for small businesses, too, notes Eshleman, whose Main Streets nonprofit works on business development in Union Square. As companies like The Engine flock to the neighborhood, their workers will look for places to eat and shop.


“That’s more lunch meetings, that’s dry-cleaning trips, that’s people needing to stop and get Mother’s Day gifts on their way to or from work,” she said. “There’s a really meaningful future ahead for what [these] workers ... mean for the businesses who have been here for decades.”

And of course the institutions that leave a changing neighborhood may well change the neighborhood they land in. Artisan’s Asylum, for instance, is moving to Harvard University-owned space in Lower Allston — like Somerville, a once-rough, artsy, enclave that’s undergoing a massive transformation. It will open next year.

Still, Hasselblad Torres said, leaving Union Square was a blow to his organization, severing ties to its history, and losing perhaps one-third of its membership in the transition. Most importantly, he said, having to leave because lease negotiations didn’t pan out points to a more global truth facing artists in this new version of Boston.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “this tension between building an economy on [money] versus building a society where you have a big heart is kind of the tension that we’re all wrestling with right now.”