Orders split slightly on making Foundry either a center for STEAM, or just for arts
There’s not just action on the long-unused Foundry building coming Monday, but hope that the council will be aligned and focused on what it wants at the East Cambridge building.
The empty former manufacturing building has been the city’s for more than two years as part of a real estate zoning deal, but what to do with its 53,800 square feet and the $11.3 million it might cost for vital renovations has kept the City Council stymied, much to the frustration of community members clamoring for community, arts and business incubator space.
But the agenda for Monday’s council meeting has two only slightly divergent policy orders that could get things moving:
Councillors Dennis Benzan and Nadeem Mazen want all of the Foundry space leased to nonprofits working in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics fields, and they ask that City Manager Richard C. Rossi take a census of those potential Foundry nonprofits and figure out how to do renovations and leases most efficiently and at minimum cost to the city.
Councillor Tim Toomey is even bolder, asking Rossi to allocate money for the renovations that will turn the building into a community arts center.
Not only do the policy orders overlap on the arts category, but Toomey’s initial order on the building in June 2012 asked consideration of it as everything from school administration space to “space for a machine shop, space for community classes and artists, low-cost office space for nonprofits, space for neighborhood groups, space for a community kitchen, space for dance group … space for the arts [and] tech education/reeducation,” making it possible he would still consider the uses valid.
Mazen, meanwhile had been a proponent of the Foundry as an arts center and was among the organizers of a “Foundry Equation” open house event last June to show off the site’s potential as art space.
On Sunday, Mazen praised Toomey’s policy order, in part for its conciseness. The order he wrote with Benzan splits movement in a similar direction into more steps and a broader spectrum of community uses.
“Our neighborhoods are in dire need of substantial new space dedicated to mentorship, apprenticeship, scholarship, fabrication, expression and training related to STEAM,” he and Benzan said in their order, arguing that leasing the building to organizations providing that would give residents “technical, professional and academic skills needed to excel in the classroom and to participate in the innovation economy.”
Both orders cite testimony from the public as support for their goals. Aside from Toomey’s proposal being more tightly focused, the main difference between the two is his assertion that the city taking on the initiative and cost of renovations would simplify leasing the space.
“Having the City of Cambridge complete the necessary upgrades can expand interest in the building to more arts-related organizations because upgrade expenses are no longer a factor,” Toomey said.
Renovations are necessary in part because as long as the building continued in use under the ownership of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, its building code failures were grandfathered in. When the building changed hands and emptied, it became impossible to lease without upgrades.
The building, at 101 Rogers St., was given the city in January 2012. The deal with Alexandria said municipal or community uses were preferred for it and that at least 10,000 square feet of it was required as community, educational, cultural or institutional uses. For roughly the first 15 months of city ownership, little happened, but former city manager Robert W. Healy eventually suggested a $40,000 study of the renovation costs. The results in June gave the $11.3 million price tag and, noting that the expense wasn’t included in the city’s five-year financial plans, advised the council to sell.
Study was a clean slate
Despite the work that went into crafting the Alexandria deal okayed 8-1 by the council in 2009, the need for a study and its findings seemed to surprise city officials.
Rather than being an update on information the city used to craft the deal more than four years ago, the study was “a clean slate … that heard the parameters and jumped in from scratch,” said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager and head of the Community Development Department. In 2009, he was a city councillor and part of the Alexandra negotiation team.
“I don’t remember what took place with that in terms of the process, because it was a fairly intricate. I know the Foundry was a late item in terms of addition to the zoning, but how late I just don’t remember,” Murphy said in July.
The Foundry Works Building was built in about 1895 as manufacturing space. One reason the city considered taking on the building was that its historic nature could complicate private development, he said – a rationale that ran contrary to Healy’s suggestion to sell the building rather than pay to renovate it.