Sunday, June 16, 2024

Somerville city councilor Willey Burnley Jr. in campaign materials. (Photo: Willey Burnley Jr)

A town hall about the Armory building in Somerville is being championed by Somerville city councilor Willie Burnley Jr., who said Wednesday that he is concerned about a lack of transparency around management at the building by city staff that has the City Council “left in the dark.”

The City of Somerville took the 191 Highland Ave. building by eminent domain in May from the Sater family, owners of the Middle East nightclub complex in Cambridge, to “preserve the facility for arts uses” permanently. But the Armory’s nine arts-based business tenants and handful of sub-leasers are nervous about being evicted at the city’s whim, said Parama Chattopadhyay, of the Out of the Blue Art Gallery, who spearheaded the effort to hold a town hall with a petition signed by 135 people.

“Let’s talk about the truth of what’s gone on in this space, because the wider community of Somerville deserves to know how it’s treating this population, including vulnerable individuals like low-income artists who struggle to get by while providing a service for the community,” Burnley said. “I am working with a few stakeholders to figure out how we can get a town hall going.”

Burnley said that the city has made conditions challenging for tenants, perhaps because it is working to repopulate the building.

“If the city makes this an inhospitable place that is not sustainable, then that is one pathway to slowly removing folks and then repopulating it,” Burnley said. “The city may have put in stipulations that make it difficult for the remaining tenants to stay there. That’s not how we should be doing business.”

The city urged tenants to sign a lease ending in December that would have led to a possible extension through June. Many tenants, objecting to conditions such as the inability to sublet space and a requirement to pay city legal fees in the event of a lawsuit, did not sign. At a tenants’ meeting last week, the city explained that it was offering tenants in good standing the chance to sign a new lease that would extend their occupancy through the end of the year.

Some tenants may choose to leave and others opt to move in, said Thomas Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development, on Wednesday. 

Master plan and consultant expected

The city is in the process of developing an Armory Master Plan and hiring an arts consultant to help, Galligani said.

A city document mentions that the arts consultant will be responsible for providing a “proposed master plan, with accompanying business plan, for the building that addresses property management and ideal tenant composition” and “guiding principles for re-tenanting the building for maximizing the arts based on planning process.”

The work is supposed to be done by May, according to the document. The consultant would be hired by the end of March. Burnley said he is concerned that with a deadline bearing down, the city has shared almost no information about the hiring. 

The city promised public discussions about who the consultant will be, but has held only tenant meeting with managers – in September, Chattopadhyay said.

“We’re all in limbo, because we’re not signing these unfair leases,” Chattopadhyay said. 

The town hall meeting, which would also most likely be held by the end of March, would open up a public process that would bring together artists from the Armory, political figures and the wider community.