Boston Globe: In fast-changing Union Square, a business park commands a premium price


The metal shop at the maker space Artisan’s Asylum at Ames Business Park.

By Tim Logan GLOBE STAFF APRIL 15, 2018

A lot of changes are coming to Somerville’s Union Square. But the new owner of one especially funky corner of the fast-evolving neighborhood is hoping to keep things largely as they are.

Boston-based Rafi Properties closed last week on an $88 million deal to buy the Ames Business Park, a former envelope factory complex that has become a hub of the city’s creative and innovative economy. It’s a huge sum for a nondescript string of warehouses tucked between the commuter rail tracks and Somerville Avenue just west of Union Square. But what goes on inside makes them more than worth the price, said Colin Yip, who manages Rafi along with his sister Baillie.

“This is a really unusual place,” he said. “There’s a big opportunity here.”

For decades, much of the seven-acre complex was home to Ames Safety Envelope Co. — at one time the largest employer in Somerville. But Ames folded in 2010, leaving the building’s owners — descendants of the envelope company’s founder — with a string of empty warehouses, which they then filled with the kinds of companies that reflect Somerville’s modern economy.

That includes tech incubator Greentown Labs, which moved to the site from the Seaport in 2013, and Brooklyn Boulders, which turned a vast warehouse with 50-foot ceilings into a bright, mural-covered rock-climbing gym that now boasts 2,500 members.

Next door, on one side, is the craft brewer Aeronaut Brewing. On the other, there’s Artisan’s Asylum, a nonprofit “maker space” filled with rows of heavy-duty tools and stalls where individual artisans and artsy startups hammer (or weld or carve) to create.

Other tenants range from a screen-printing shop to a wine distributor to an outpost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“This sort of place is completely unique in Greater Boston,” said Ted Sirota, president of Artisan’s Asylum, which was launched in a basement and now fills 40,000 square feet of the old envelope plant. “Without a home like this, I don’t know where these things would happen.”

Indeed, as real estate values have surged in and around Boston in recent years, and new development has flowed into long-neglected corners of the city, light-industrial and creative companies have increasingly been priced out. Yip, whose firm is backed by private equity investors in Hong Kong and beat out more than 20 initial bidders to buy the project, said he doesn’t want that to happen at Ames.

“We were attracted to the community we saw here, and everything that’s going on in Union Square,” he said. “People are looking for authentic, human interaction, and this is the sort of place where that happens.”

Many of the major tenants have relatively long leases, which will keep them in place for several years, at least. Which is not to say there won’t be changes. A few tenants will probably turn over, Yip acknowledged. There’s also a new name — Somernova — and a website. And he’s aiming for better publicity, so people know it’s there.

“We want to put this on the map,” Yip said. “The better the companies here do, the better the whole area is going to do.”

Places like the Ames have become important to Somerville’s identity and economy, said Tom Galligani, the city’s director of economic development. Keeping the right chemistry there — in a heated real estate market — will be no easy feat, but he’s encouraged by what the new owners have said.

“It’s hard to find places where people can be gritty and creative and try things,” he said. “That’s part of what drew [Yip] to this, and to this building.”

There’s another reason to keep the Ames park as is: In a fast-evolving neighborhood, with modern office buildings and high-end apartments ready to sprout, Yip is betting that some tenants will want to stay close to Somerville’s industrial roots — and that they’ll be happy to rent in old warehouses tucked in by the railroad tracks.

“This is not a flashy, glitzy place,” he said. “And we think there’s strong demand for that.”

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.