Thursday, May 23, 2024

The EMF Building near Central Square was featured in the Web series “Quiet Desperation,” about the struggle to survive as an artist in Greater Boston.

Though evictions of hundreds of musicians and artists from the EMF Building near Central Square are on schedule for the end of April, the buyer has agreed to sit down to discuss the situation with his tenants and, in a separate meeting, with the mayor and city manager.

When he does, John DiGiovanni – who bought the 120 Brookline St. building two years ago for $4 million – can expect the topic of a sale to the city to be broached. City councillors passed an order Monday calling for the talk, a toughening of an existing order calling for more time for the tenants before they were thrown out and for the city to explore securing a space of its own like the EMF Building, which has affordable practice rooms and art spaces, the New Alliance recording studios and, until DiGiovanni declined a lease renewal, WEMF radio station offices.

DiGiovanni is president of the Harvard Square Business Association and Trinity Property Management; he bought the EMF Building through his business Ledgemoor.

Impassioned public comment

The council voted Monday after some three dozen musicians, artists and supporters called for action during public comment.

“The company he represents is amoral, just as all companies are amoral. They are organisms that exist to maximize their benefit,” EMF community member Madeleine Weaver said of DiGiovanni. “Throughout American history, private citizens and workers have been exploited by companies, and from those injustices was born [a] function of government: to regulate business.”

“A biolab? A luxury condo? What kind of future do you expect to have here in this city? I only see a ghost town – a cultural wasteland,” said Dave Tree, an artist and musician who said he’d been at EMF since its beginnings in 2006, when William “Des” Desmond outfitted much of it from the ground up.

A few members of the arts community mentioned the many economic boosts EMF contributed daily to Central Square and Cambridge as a whole. “We spend a ton of money here,” buying drinks at 1369 Coffee House to sustain a recording session and going to Clover for a late-night meal afterward, said Glen Smith of New Alliance, and having a recording studio in town means bringing through a steady stream of visitors to see “how great” the city is.

Musician and events curator Anna Rae made similar points in a letter read to the council, adding notes about the shows she put on in the city – and the time in 2016 that her band performed for free at the Make Music Harvard Square Festival, which is produced by the Harvard Square Business Association. “The president of that organization is the same person who signed my EMF eviction notice,” Rae’s letter says. “How ironic. How shortsighted.”

The goal “should be to keep the artists in the building,” said Olivia D’Ambrosio, whose recent run for City Council was explicitly as a working artist who intended to support the arts – which she identified from a summer report as an annual $175 million economic boost to the city, for which the municipal government spends $1.1 million a year. “If they are pushed out, helping them find homes will be an enormously complicated undertaking, like having to undergo several expensive painful root canals when a simple routine of flossing would have prevented tooth decay in the first place.”

Amplified amendment

Some councillors agreed, with Dennis Carlone estimating that it would take at least one to two years to outfit a building for displaced musicians and artists, whereas the perfect location already exists – if DiGiovanni were to keep it whole. As it is, testimony from residents described EMF as a universe unto itself where a band could rehearse, record and master an album, press it into CDs and get it played on the radio before going down the street to nightclubs to perform in.

Quinton Zondervan, whose order already asked city officials to work with DiGiovanni for more time for EMF tenants and to look for replacement buildings, decided to turn it up to 11 by also trying negotiations that would make EMF city-owned – ideally with Desmond continuing as manager, an offer made during public comment.

Councillors Craig Kelley, Alanna Mallon, E. Denise Simmons and Tim Toomey pushed back for various reasons (including that management of city-owned buildings is subject to a public bidding process). In the end, Zondervan’s proposal won over every councillor but Simmons – who voted “present” – and Toomey, who voted no in consideration of the need for affordable housing in the city. “To award this property exclusively to artists and musicians, I just couldn’t,” Toomey said.

The final order, with the amendment, passed 8-1, with only Toomey objecting.

“This is an investment”

City councillor Quinton Zondervan has emerged as a strong support of the arts. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Zondervan said he defended the idea of fighting for municipal ownership not just because of the sudden losses to the community as artists sought space in Malden, Norwood, Dorchester or other less accessible places mentioned by commenters, or because the benefits offered by people such as Ruby Rose Fox, an award-winning musician whose nonprofit gives free lessons to local kids.

“The building is currently operating and is financially viable … it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent that these artists are paying,” Zondervan said. “We’re not talking about giving them a gift; we’re talking about buying a financially viable property that would return that value to us in just a few years. This is not a gift, this is an investment. Not just in terms of rent but also in terms of preserving this very important community and the economic benefits that they bring.”

Mayor Marc McGovern supported Zondervan’s amendment because he already planned to ask DiGiovanni about a purchase when the developer came to talk with him, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale and other officials at a time to be set. McGovern said DiGiovanni had also agreed to sit down at some point with three to four representatives of the arts community.

“At the end of the day, he gets to decide,” McGovern said of DiGiovanni. “It is a private real estate sale by a private owner with tenants who are tenants at will that he can evict within 30 days. He has that right.”

Still, the developer goes into discussions with a weakened hand: Along with the general public outcry, there has been talk among musicians of boycotting events such as the Make Music Harvard Square Festival; and councillor Jan Devereux pointed out that his April 30 eviction date at EMF seems disconnected to any demolition or construction permit date, meaning there “hasn’t been a demonstrated need for the building to be vacant.”

In addition, emails shared with WBUR’s The ARTery and Cambridge Day reveal claims by DiGiovanni of safety hazards and ground contamination, including to the Central Square Business Association, but artists and Zondervan aide Dan Totten said their consultations with safety officials have found no documentation to back that up.