Developer pulls Somerville ‘tough tech’ mega-campus proposal— for now

Developer pulls Somerville ‘tough tech’ mega-campus proposal— for now

Developer pulls Somerville ‘tough tech’ mega-campus proposal— for now

By Greg Ryan

Boston-based Rafi Properties has withdrawn a zoning proposal that would enable the firm to build taller at its Somernova business campus in Somerville, with plans to refile the measure this spring after more discussions with local officials and residents.

Last year, Rafi proposed replacing Somernova’s low-slung structures with five significantly taller buildings totaling nearly 2 million square feet, with a goal of making the property a major hub for climatetech and “tough tech.” Organizations like Greentown Labs and MIT’s The Engine are already tenants at the 7.5-acre campus, along with small businesses like Aeronaut Brewing Co.

In December, the real estate firm formally put forward a plan to the City Council to change the zoning in the neighborhood to allow for the estimated $3.3 billion expansion. But that plan has encountered pushback, including from an arts advocacy group concerned the changes will displace artists in the area.

“The reason for withdrawing is so that we can work with the Union Square Neighborhood Council, city staff and neighbors to revise the proposed Somernova project in response to comments that have been received,” the development team said in a statement.

Rafi and the Somernova development team plan to refile a revised zoning proposal in the spring.

Cambridge Day first reported the proposal’s withdrawal. The news outlet previously reported that city officials had raised the prospect of a compromise that would enable Somernova to expand to some degree while keeping building heights to four stories.

The group #ARTSSTAYHERE organized in response to Rafi’s proposal, pushing back against the rollback of the fabrication or “fab” zoning now in place that is meant to nurture the arts and creative community. The organization’s campaign urged city officials: “DON’T F WITH FAB!” 

Tough tech is a catch-all term that describes businesses that are developing technology that involves more expensive or complex equipment than a typical app maker. Real estate leaders are looking to the industry as an area of growth in Greater Boston and a partial salve to the steep drop in demand for life sciences facilities. Somerville is already home to a cluster of tough tech firms, in large part because of Greentown Labs’ presence in the city.

Somernova is now about 300,000 square feet. Rafi’s initial proposal last year envisioned five new buildings over four blocks ranging from nine to 16 stories. It also proposed community and retail space.

Rafi announced Monday that one of its Somernova tenants, the sustainable cement maker Sublime Systems, is more than quadrupling its footprint at the campus to nearly 30,000 square feet.

“After starting out at Greentown, we wanted to continue our growth trajectory amid the innovative ecosystem we were founded in,” Sublime CEO Leah Ellis said in a statement.

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