Seizure of Armory Building to preserve arts use takes step forward in Somerville officials’ vote
Somerville took one step closer Monday to seizing the Armory Building owned by Cambridge’s Sater family, with the intention of preserving its use as a community space dedicated to the arts.
All five members of the Somerville City Council’s Finance Committee voted for the land taking, which would remove the building at 191 Highland Ave. from the Sater’s private ownership in exchange for $5 million – a figure arrived at by an assessor hired by the City of Somerville.
The decision must still be approved by Somerville’s full City Council, which could happen as soon as its regular meeting May 13. The $5 million bonding appropriation for the eminent domain land taking needs approval of a supermajority of the 11-member council, or eight members.
“This as an opportunity that we’re in fiscal position to take advantage of now, that we were not in a position to do when the property was initially auctioned off by the state,” committee chair J.T. Scott said Monday.
The Saters, who own The Middle East nightclub complex in Cambridge’s Central Square, bought the armory from the state in 2004 and converted it to an arts use under a 2005 special permit issued by Somerville. But the family has recently signaled it is looking at voiding the special permit and ending the arts use by instead filling the armory’s giant main hall with a tech company or small-scale manufacturer, according to an April report by George Proakis, executive director of community development for Somerville. The change in use would oust the nonprofit arts organizations that lease space in the building, including the Center for Arts at the Armory that programs the main hall and cafe space.
A message seeking comment was left Thursday with the Saters.
A public good
Discussion Monday began with a report on the financial sustainability of an arts-based but city-owned armory by Barry Abramson, of West Newton’s Abramson & Associates, who said a few days of research suggested municipal ownership provided a stronger base for financial success than private ownership. “It has traditionally operated on kind of a shoestring budget and been understaffed, which is not a good formula for sustainable operation,” Abramson said of the armory.
The argument held little weight for Scott, though.
“I have no doubt that we will find ways to help the city recoup some of its costs here. But fundamentally, I don’t view this entire transaction as a question of whether or not it can be profitable or how much of its own debt service it can pay back,” Scott said. “It’s a fundamental mistake to consider the provision of a public good as a profit center, or as something that even needs to pay for itself. Our sewers and our roads don’t necessarily pay for themselves. Our libraries certainly don’t pay for themselves. This is a public good, and it’s very clear to me that this facility, operating as an art center, is essential.”
Proakis told Scott that the focus of the financial analysis was only to cover operating costs, and that many details could be figured out “when we own the building.” He also assured residential neighbors of the armory that the city was “in a good position” to finish a soundproofing project that was largely complete, though after roughly a decade of work.