N ow that glassblowing is a "permitted use" in Needham, the glassblowers are coming to town.
Simple Syrup Glass Studio, which Emily Abbott runs with her husband, Jonathan Betsch, will soon be producing its translucent globes, bowls, and other objects in Gorse Mill Studios, an 1880 former textile factory in Needham Heights that is being converted into 31 artist spaces.
Gorse Mill was developed with the idea of creating a one-stop miniature community of potters, sculptors, and painters in the town's Thorpe Road neighborhood of tree-lined streets and single-family homes.
It works for Abbot, who grew up in Needham and is moving back to town. She said she'll enjoy a greater sense of community in Gorse Mill than she does in Brockton, where she and Betsch own a building.
"There are a lot of artists in Needham," Abbott said. "But they are working in their houses or renting space closer to the city. This brings them together."
A number of Boston's western suburbs are using new local zoning rules to encourage artists to move into old properties in town centers. The artists are welcome, officials say, because they can convert disused buildings into nodes of culture and commerce, and the arrangement puts them closer to suburban art buyers and Boston's museums and art schools.
The Gorse Mill studio spaces are the result of a special zoning permit granted in April to potters Steven Branfman and Lewis Cohen, who are renovating the building. Under the permit, the studio units are treated in a fashion similar to condominiums, Branfman said. Artists purchase them and belong to the building's co-op organization. The only catch is that the Gorse Mill units can be used only as working art studios, not residences.
Observers said the trend is similar to the way cities have encouraged artists to bring life to blighted urban areas, like Fort Point Channel in Boston. But artists in the suburbs are often seen as older than their urban counterparts and with more money to spend on redeveloping properties where they can pursue their art.
"I don't think we'll have a problem selling here," said Branfman, who said he has already sold seven spaces, with the first artists arriving in the next few months, without having to advertise. The average Gorse Mill studio is 400 square feet and costs around $145,000, he said. "Artists are looking for stability. This is a way to stabilize your career."
The Renaissance Lofts in Marlborough is more like the urban model, with the spaces being created for artists to both work and live. A 1,500-square-foot live-work space sells for $310,000, according to the development's website, which features 29 lofts with brick walls and classic artist-garret character. The building is a renovated wire mill that received a special permit from the City Council two years ago, allowing residents to work in the space as artists and sell their wares from a gallery in the building, said Marlborough's building commissioner, Stephen Reid.
He expected that four lofts will be occupied soon.
"They're taking some concepts out of the Cambridge and Boston area and bringing it to the suburbs," Reid said. "It's mixing up our socioeconomic base a little bit, bringing in people with a whole art environment."
The Lincoln Street neighborhood surrounding the Renaissance Lofts is zoned for business, but the old wire factory was grandfathered as an industrial space, Reid said. With artists working and living there, the historic character of the factory is retained, and the lofts generate foot traffic from residents and visitors. The promise of that bustle has already inspired others nearby to spruce up their buildings, he said.
"They made the thing a stunning example of attractive architecture and, as a result of that, there are other positive effects in the neighborhood," Reid said. "There are other property owners who have embarked on renovation projects that may not have happened otherwise."
Suburban communities are rarely as open to artists as Boston, where people in creative professions are allowed to live in industrial-zoned spaces that normally don't permit residential use, said Jason Schupbach, director of ArtistLink, an arm of the Massachusetts Cultural Council that maintains a database of artist spaces.
But Schupbach said Gorse Mill and the Renaissance Lofts are two of the most exciting examples in Massachusetts of suburban venues that will provide artists with the kinds of studios and housing they seek. "These are not refined spaces," he said. "It's really a blank space and that's what artists want. That's why a lot of these old mill buildings work perfectly. It can be a really good boon for the community, because they are basically bringing in a lot of small businesses."
Schupbach said around 130 live-work developments for artists are under construction across the state, including some in cities like Pittsfield and Worcester, where overlay zoning allowing artists to live in industrial districts has been created. Those projects don't always radically improve their neighborhoods, and artists don't always move in, but allowing development that attracts artists has been crucial to the rebirth of some Massachusetts communities, he said.
In recent years, downtowns that have long been suffering from the decline of Main Street America, said Schupbach, are being reinvigorated through such developments as the nonprofit Waltham Mills Artists' Association, housed in a former wool factory on Moody Street in Waltham; the nonprofit ArtSpace-Maynard, in the town's former Fowler Middle School; and the new BlueSkies Studios in a Broad Street mill in Hudson; as well as groups of artists renting studios in Framingham and Natick.
"A lot of them look for artists as one piece of a strong economic development strategy," Schupbach said. "Lowell has been working on that for a long time, marketing [itself] as a place for artists, and it has been successful."
Of course, artists develop their own creative ways of bringing a community together. Gary Perlmutter and a handful of other artists who work out of the Winchell Building, a former shoe factory at 25 Washington Ave. in Natick, get together every Tuesday night to create paintings of chickens, for example.
Perlmutter, who lives in Sherborn, said he looks forward to the weekly sessions the same way he couldn't wait to attend painting courses in past years. "It sounds kind of absurd, but it's a very special time for us as artists, and we have very different styles," he said.
Recently, the chicken group held a show at Gallery 55 in Natick, and Perlmutter said he sold a painting for $1,600. The rent for his 350-square-foot studio is a few hundred dollars a month. He won't quit his day job, as an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, he said, but if he were a starving artist, he could have at least paid his studio rent for a few months with the money he earned from the sale.
Patrick Reffett, Natick's Community Development Department director, said the Winchell Building is zoned for light-industrial use. As long as artists don't live in the spaces, he said, the town encourages them to paint chickens or whatever else they want. Ultimately, he said, that's what the zoning was intended for in the first place.
"It is, if you will, manual crafting, creation of products," Reffett said. "Luckily, for the world, it doesn't have the byproducts that industry a few decades ago did. It's one of the things that makes the community a great place."