By Greg Ryan
The real estate firm behind Somerville’s Somernova business campus is proposing to replace the low-slung structures now on the site with a $3.3 billion redevelopment featuring five significantly taller buildings aimed at “tough tech” tenants.
Right now, the 7.5-acre Somernova campus — located off Somerville Avenue, a half-mile west of Union Square — includes about 300,000 square feet of space leased to a mix of tech-focused companies and organizations like Greentown Labs and MIT’s The Engine venture firm as well as small businesses like Aeronaut Brewing Co. and the Bouldering Project.
Boston-based Rafi Properties is interested in demolishing the existing buildings and constructing five new ones over four blocks, ranging in height from nine to 16 stories, totaling nearly 2 million square feet, according to a preliminary version of the master plan posted on its website. The construction would take place in phases over a decade or more. The mixed-use redevelopment would include retail space and a community center in addition to all of the new R&D space, though no housing.
The plans are still in the earliest stages. Rafi has presented a preliminary master plan to community members, and its leaders want to continue talking with the community before formally filing a proposal with the city. The news outlet Cambridge Day first reported on the plan.
The redevelopment would require a change in zoning. The current zoning was designed for manufacturing and fabrication uses, Rafi managing director Collin Yip wrote in an executive summary of the plan, but “these industries have evolved, and the policy no longer works for their purpose.” Rafi has floated a “climate and equity” overlay district instead. Several of Somernova’s current tenants focus on cleantech or clean energy.
Yip lamented that employers have outgrown Somernova and expanded elsewhere. Greentown has its own building adjacent to Somernova, in addition to its space on the campus, while The Engine opened a Cambridge headquarters last year. The battery maker Form Energy leased a larger space in Somerville’s Inner Belt neighborhood earlier this year, while extending its Somernova lease.
Tough tech is a catch-all term that describes businesses like cleantechs that are developing technology that involves more expensive or complex equipment than an app or software maker handles. Fast-growing companies in the sector, fueled by an influx of federal clean-energy funding, have taken large leases in Boston-area buildings this year that had been marketed to the life sciences industry.
“What we really see for Somernova is a collection of buildings that are incredibly flexible and incredibly durable,” that can handle equipment as heavy as one-ton batteries, said Russell Preston, director of design and development for Somernova.
Still, the sector is nascent. A tough-tech campus of the size envisioned by Rafi would be one of the largest of its kind in Greater Boston, if not the largest.
The developer is pursuing the expansion because of the grouping of tough techs on its properties now, as well as others that have set up shop nearby in Somerville, according to Preston.
“This is not necessarily a speculative project,” he said. “We have some confidence around these tenants. They are very ambitious, very passionate people and they’ve got a lot of growth potential. We want to support the impact they might have globally on climate change.”
The Somernova redevelopment project would be the most significant that Rafi has taken on locally. The firm was started by the Hong Kong native Yip when he was a Boston University student in 2010. Its portfolio includes commercial and residential properties in Greater Boston and Hong Kong.
Rafi proposed a 30-story residential tower in Downtown Crossing in 2015, though that project never came to fruition. It acquired Somernova, then known as Ames Business Park, in 2018. Rafi is now building a three-story, 43,000-square-foot R&D building near Somernova, at 599 Somerville Ave., that is expected to be ready early next year.