Will Somerville get a new makerspace between Tufts and Davis Square?

A rendering by the architecture firm DiMella Shaffer, showing the Trinity Financial/Artisan's Asylum proposal for the former Powderhouse Community School in Somerville.
A rendering by the architecture firm DiMella Shaffer, showing the Trinity Financial/Artisan's Asylum proposal for the former Powderhouse Community School in Somerville.

Two groups have submitted plans that would turn a defunct school building in Somerville into a new makerspace, or shared workshop for artists, entrepreneurs, and inventors. One of the groups already operates the area’s best-known makerspace, Artisan’s Asylum, and says that the new project could either become its future home, or a second site it would operate in addition to its current digs near Union Square.

A little background on the redevelopment of what had been the Powderhouse Community School, which closed in 2004: Tufts University was originally chosen to redevelop the site, but its 10-year timeframe was too protracted for the City of Somerville’s taste. In 2014, the city reopened the process, and last month announced that it had received eight new redevelopment bids that included condos, apartments, hotels, cafés, parks, and plazas.

The former Powderhouse Community School.

The former Powderhouse Community School.

Two of the bids include a makerspace as a key component: one from a new nonprofit called Somerville Makers and Artists (Smart Space), and one from a partnership between Artistan’s Asylum and Trinity Financial, a Boston real estate development firm.

Artisan’s Asylum currently manages a 39,000-square foot makerspace in the former Ames Safety Envelope Co. complex, but its lease ends in September 2016, and Derek Seabury, the nonprofit’s president, says that it wants to invest in its own facility. “We came into an empty envelope factory, and now it’s an innovation district,” Seabury says. “Rent that was $6 per square foot when we came here will probably be $14 when we renew, and our mission is to provide affordable workspace for people.” Asylum members pay monthly fees to use shared equipment, storage space, or take classes. Some also rent their own workspaces.

Seabury says that the current location “is kind of a fallout shelter — it’s not terribly welcoming or engaging to the community,” while a new home could be more open to neighbors and passersby, with public events and interactive sculptures. The Asylum is home to bike-building collectives like SCUL and a team of roboticists and designers who are building a giant six-legged walking robot called Stompy.

Seabury says it’s possible that the Asylum would keep some of its space in the Ames complex even if it won the bidding for the Powderhouse School. The second location would allow it to add “more quiet areas and spots where you can have a meeting,” and possibly also create “branch offices” for some in-house service providers, like lumber suppliers or circuit board fabricators.

Seabury says the earliest that the new facility would be ready would be mid-2018. While some of the eight bids propose adapting and upgrading the existing school building, the Trinity/Artists Asylum bid would demolish it.

The other proposal, from Somerville Makers and Artists, says that if its bid is chosen, “office and maker spaces will bring daytime workers to support local businesses and, over time, will continue to be sustainable economic drivers for the neighborhood and the city. In addition, these spaces will be an attractive alternative to Boston and Cambridge workers who live in or near Somerville and want shorter commute times and more affordable spaces, especially new creative businesses and sole proprietorships looking to colocate with complementary organizations.”

Among the companies that submitted letters in support of Somerville Makers and Artists’ bid is Aeronaut Brewing Co., currently a next-door neighbor of Artisan’s Asylum in the Ames complex on Somerville Avenue. Aeronaut CEO Ben Holmes writes that the microbrewery would consider setting up a second facility to “carry out our existing program of research and development — including cultivation of wild organisms and strains [for] possible use in the brewing process. It would integrate an enhanced educational component, with great openness and a broader potential for community outreach and classes…”

The next step in the process, according to George Proakis, director of planning for Somerville, is to evaluate the bids over the next month or two, and then make a recommendation to Somerville’s mayor and Board of Aldermen. Community meetings would follow. “My hope is that sometime by end of 2015, we have a preferred partner we’re working with, and the community support, and then we begin permitting,” Proakis says.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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