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Union Square developers pitch urban marketplace

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Bow Market would have up to 40 retail spaces as small as 150 square feet, leased by food and art sellers.
Bow Market would have up to 40 retail spaces as small as 150 square feet, leased by food and art sellers.Austin Blanks/Boyes-Watson Architects

Tucked away from a busy section of rapidly changing Union Square in Somerville sits a parking lot and drab cement block building lately used mostly for storage.

With the rest of Union Square poised to undergo a dramatic remake, a development group is hoping to turn this little patch off Somerville Avenue into a new urban marketplace featuring dozens of micro-sized retail spaces overlooking a courtyard with outdoor seating and trees.

"It's kind of funkier and grungier and weirder," developer Matthew Boyes-Watson said. "It's something that's not available to the planned development."

His Bow Market would be a small addition to a neighborhood slated for a $1 billion redevelopment that would add millions of square feet of new commercial development, 12 new acres of open space, and more than 2,300 housing units.

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Key to the redevelopment, however, is an expansion of the MBTA Green Line through Somerville and Medford, including a spur into a new station in Union Square. That expansion had been troubled by rising construction costs, and the state is in talks about the scope of the project.

The neighborhood is already in flux. Real estate values have spiked as Union Square has developed a hip urban reputation, hosting a weekly summer farmer's market, serving as the site for several annual festivals, and welcoming several highly regarded restaurants.

Bow Market would have up to 40 retail spaces as small as 150 square feet, leased by food and art sellers. The vendors ideally would be aspiring merchants "from farmers markets or food trucks, graduating to a brick and mortar space" but who cannot yet afford larger retail space in Somerville's hot real estate market, Boyes-Watson said.

The vendors ideally would be aspiring merchants “from farmers markets or food trucks, graduating to a brick and mortar space” but who cannot yet afford larger retail space.
The vendors ideally would be aspiring merchants “from farmers markets or food trucks, graduating to a brick and mortar space” but who cannot yet afford larger retail space.Austin Blanks/Boyes-Watson Architects

His development team is also applying to use a larger location near the back of the property for a brew pub or coffee-roasting operation, according to a document filed with the city.

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Boyes-Watson declined to say what the project would cost; the purchase of the property is pending city approval. The Somerville Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled to review the project Wednesday.

The project is small compared with what Somerville has in store for the rest of Union Square but fits well within the city's plans and has the support of Mayor Joseph Curtatone, said George Proakis, Somerville's planning director. The idea aligns with a Union Square master plan released by the city in May, which highlighted the space for potential use as a "cluster of artist stalls."

"The proposal is a creative, adaptive reuse of the building, and it will allow for the types of modest commercial spaces that our small maker and arts enterprises are seeking," Proakis said.

The proposed market space is just one portion of a larger lot, and its development would come in tandem with a complex real estate deal.

The full property includes a vacant storefront along Somerville Avenue, which would be subdivided and sold to an unnamed group that plans to open a restaurant, Boyes-Watson said.

Two other organizations occupy space in the existing lot and also plan to buy their own spaces: Sallie O'Brien's, a bar and restaurant; and the housing nonprofit Somerville Community Corporation, which has been raising concerns about affordability and displacement ahead of the broader Union Square redevelopment.

Danny LeBlanc, chief executive of the Somerville Community Corporation, said the proposed development and real estate arrangement will help "strike a balance with large-scale redevelopment and smaller-scale local ownership" in the neighborhood.

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"It's preserving something that's pretty local," he said.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.