Abandoned garage in Somerville to become ‘pop-up’ sports and arts hub
Where others may have seen nothing but a vacant auto body shop, Chas Wagner saw an opportunity to create a temporary place for people to showcase their artwork, play sports, and gather for events.
Wagner, a Pittsburgh native who moved to the Boston area nearly four years ago, is in the midst of transforming the former Unlimited Auto Body Inc. building on Somerville Avenue in Somerville into what he’s dubbed “The Clubhouse” — a multi-use space that features an outdoor basketball court.
Wagner will be occupying the space until the fall of 2017. He envisions scheduling “pop-up” events like basketball tournaments with food trucks, outdoor spin classes, indoor art galleries, yoga classes, and movie nights using a projector and a shop wall as a big screen.
The garage is slated to come down to make way for condominiums. Wagner cut a deal with the building owner to occupy it until then.
“If we didn’t take it over, it was going to sit here vacant, on one of the main drags in Somerville,” said Wagner. “We’re just trying to give something back to the community.”
Wagner is working with 2,600 square feet of space outside and roughly 2,400 square feet inside the garage.
Cambridge artist Caleb Neelon applied his craft and turned the bland brick exterior of the garage into a colorful mural with bursts of red, blue, green, and purple.
Wagner then drilled a basketball hoop into the wall outside with a crocheted net created by Cara Kuball. Maria Molteni and a collective called the New Craft Artists in Action added the finishing touches, and painted onto the ground a colorful court.
The shop’s interior is mostly vacant. Wagner spruced it up the best he could, scrubbing away years worth of oil marks that stained the gray floors. He installed a projector overhead in the main portion of the space, allowing for videos to be shown on a blank wall.
In the smaller portion of the auto body shop, where workers used to paint vehicles, Wagner has on display sports-themed items and artwork. Custom-made wooden hockey sticks lean carefully against a wall on one side, while pennants and sports magazines and journals line homemade shelves on the other. A table in the middle hosts T-shirts and sweatshirts that read, “Somerville” and “617,” the local area code.
He wants art walls. He sees dance parties. He pictures a marketplace for local retailers or food vendors.
“It’s going to be a sports and art hub,” said Wagner, a former Runkeeper employee who now runs an e-commerce business called Rally Sports. “It’s all about collaboration.”
While Wagner anticipates opening up “The Clubhouse” in May, he still has some hurdles to jump. Because the garage is zoned as a commercial space and Wagner is looking to change its use, the building needs to meet certain fire and safety codes before the public can go inside.
He has applied for a certificate of occupancy, but changes need to be made to the property before he gets clearance, according to Max MacCarthy, small business liaison for the city of Somerville.
City officials have supported the endeavor but want to make sure it’s done safely and legally.
“We are working with him right now in developing ways to solve some of the challenges,” said MacCarthy. “I’m confident that, working with him, we can figure out the issues. If we can find solutions, we think it would be a great addition to the city.”
MacCarthy said that as Wagner wades through the paperwork, he can seal off the building and utilize the outdoor space for events.
Already, the space has attracted attention. On Wednesday, as the sun beat down on the basketball court, bringing to life the bright colors of the mural on the garage, two curious passersby stopped to examine the building.
The artwork drew them in. But as Wagner explained his vision of what the garage will become, they stuck around and shot hoops.
“It’s such a beautiful space, and I love the idea of how it’s interactive,” said Kasha Rigby, who took a couple of shots on the basketball hoop outside, making both. “It’s opening the doors to your community and making it playful and beautiful.”