Big changes could be coming to the heart of Somerville’s Davis Square. Student housing developer Scape has acquired a string of storefronts on Elm Street that are home to several longstanding neighborhood institutions.
The British firm, which builds privately run dorms, last month paid nearly $10 million for buildings that house Irish pub The Burren, McKinnon’s Market, the Sligo Pub, and several restaurants, according to a long-term lease filed in Middlesex County earlier this month.
Executives with Scape wouldn’t say what they have planned, but the firm specializes in building privately run student housing that is independent of any particular school. It’s done projects in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia, and has proposed a 15-story building on Boylston Street in the Fenway as its first venture in the United States.
“We remain excited to bring an innovative approach to urban living in Boston and beyond,” said Andrew Flynn, chief executive at Scape North America. “As we look to potential projects in Somerville, we are fully committed to a transparent process that engages all stakeholders as we move forward on specific plans over the next few years.”
Should Scape propose something even half the size of its Fenway project on the eight-tenths-of-an-acre site on Elm Street, it would be the largest development in Davis Square in recent years.
Rents in the neighborhood have escalated, thanks in part to an influx of graduate students and young professionals. But it has retained some of its low-key vibe and longstanding local businesses, even as other student-centric areas such as Harvard Square have changed dramatically in recent years.
The businesses in the buildings Scape acquired remain open, and a spokeswoman said the company is “open to discussions” with tenants about them staying put. Owners of The Burren, a popular bar and music club for more than 20 years, did not immediately return a message Tuesday.
It’s unclear how Somerville might respond to the prospect of student-only housing in Davis Square. Neighbors of Scape’s proposed Fenway site have been loudly critical of the plan, saying it violates zoning and will bring more students to a part of town already crowded with them. Officials with the Boston Planning & Development Agency raised similar concerns.
Meanwhile, Somerville has stepped up affordable housing requirements and tenant protection rules in recent years. There are questions about how those regulations might apply to Scape’s nontraditional leasing structure, under which residents sign a 51-week lease — often for a shared dorm-like suite — with full onsite services and amenities aimed at older undergraduate and graduate students.
Scape executives have met with city planning staff to “present some preliminary ideas,” said George Proakis, director of Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, but he suggested that many more conversations are in the future.
“We have not received a formal application, which would come after an inclusive public process with the Davis Square neighborhood . . . that we also look forward to participating in,” Proakis said in a statement.
Scape has said that it plans to invest $1 billion or more in student housing in and around Boston. Along with its proposed project on Boylston Street, the company paid $39 million in April to buy the Trans National Building along the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Fenway. Real estate professionals with knowledge of the matter say Scape has a contract to acquire a parking lot on Beacon Street that’s now owned by Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s also reportedly considering other sites in Somerville and perhaps Cambridge.
Scape’s $9.75 million lease in Davis Square was first reported by real estate trade publication Banker & Tradesman.