Sunday, June 23, 2024

The entry of the Armory building in Somerville, under city ownership since May 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Armory Arts Building in Somerville and its tenants, awaiting judgment since an eminent domain seizure in May 2021, could get clarity at a public hearing set for Oct. 19 before a City Council committee.

City officials have said they are evaluating the current art galleries, instrument shops and other businesses to curate the future of the castlelike community arts space on Highland Avenue.

Create Today, an arts consultant, is beginning to host focus groups and research in a “learning phase” after completing a “listening phase,” said Ted Fields, a senior planner with the City of Somerville, in a statement last month. Two additional advisory meetings will be held this fall, according to the city’s planning website, in addition to the hearing next week before the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Community Development. 

“The city is seeking to develop the Armory into a municipal arts center under the guidance of the master plan developed by Create Today,” Fields wrote. “The city is excited to recast the Armory as an inclusive, accessible and inspiring place for local artists and arts organizations to create, perform and share their creations and skills with the public.”

The hearing – just one item on the night’s agenda items – comes in response to a public petition seeking answers about Armory tenants and management. But it hasn’t calmed everyone. 

Concerns persist

The Out of the Blue Art Gallery exhibits works in Armory stairwells. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Jennifer McSweeney of Acoustic Strings New England said the city process over the past year and five months has been secretive, and that she’s worried about the future of music businesses in the Armory.

“They’re very tight-lipped about what they actually want. I think they know, but they’re not going to tell us,” McSweeney said. “They didn’t put any music people on a committee to advise them, so I’m not really sure what they want.”

Parama Chattopadhyay, the owner of the Armory’s Out of the Blue Art Gallery, has been requesting a town hall meeting for months, and in a Tuesday email to city officials said she wasn’t satisfied with the hearing. “I look forward to a different meeting addressing the petition concerns,” she said. 

Chattopadhyay and her partner, Steve Asaro, live in one of two residentially zoned units in the Armory; the other is empty. Her residency on the third floor and business began when the Armory was owned by the Sater family, who run Cambridge’s Middle East complex of nightclubs and restaurants.

Since a city official filed a false police report regarding underage drinking and drugs at an event hosted by her gallery,  Chattopadhyay said she believes the city is looking to remove her nonprofit and terminate her lease. 

According to a city meeting presentation this year, her art gallery was deemed “arts adjacent” with Červená Barva Press, a publisher that has since left, and Henley Design, an interior design firm, while organizations categorized as “arts and culture tenants” include the nonprofit Center for the Arts at the Armory and its Roots Cafe; McSweeney’s music shop; the Arabic American Media Foundation; Dead Moon Audio; and Folk New England.

Public records request

The Center for the Arts at the Armory and its Roots Cafe is another building tenant. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Chattopadhyay has been wary that the Center for the Arts at the Armory has been anointed by city officials to stay in the Armory while there has been strategizing against her gallery. In emails obtained by Cambridge Day through a public records request, there was some discussion of strategy; Stephanie Scherpf, chief executive and co-director of the Center for the Arts at the Armory, wrote to Somerville Arts Council executive director Gregory Jenkins on May 13, 2021, with concerns that “if other Armory tenants start talking to the press at [Chattopadhyay’s] encouragement it could get more complicated.”

“Do you want to talk about outreach to Armory tenants?” she wrote to Jenkins.

In responding to Cambridge Day questions about the future of the Armory, Scherpf added context.

“Historically we have also operated more square footage than anyone else in the building,” Scherpf wrote. “We do need to be in communication with the City of Somerville, as the property owner, related to building issues in order to successfully run our many events and serve the thousands of people who walk through our doors.”

Under the Saters, her nonprofit “performed limited building management roles,” Scherpf said. Now it operates independently from the building, and from the city, as a separate entity. The city and her nonprofit were still, as of last month, finalizing a use and occupancy agreement.

“We’ve also done our best to be as supportive as possible toward other Armory tenants,” Scherpf wrote in an email. “However, it is not our role to advocate for other tenants in relation to use and occupancy agreements. We wouldn’t want them to get involved in our use and occupancy agreement, and we don’t get involved in theirs.”

In a Feb. 3 email produced as part of the public records request, former city councilor Mark Niedergang, called “the lack of progress and resolution [at the Armory] understandably upsetting to tenants.” But Niedergang felt Chattopadhyay wasn’t always being accurate in her organizing, while creating “controversy as much as she can [with] her own personal interests primarily in mind.”

Chattopadhyay separately offered a reason she was concerned about her business and home: “I put all my money into this building with the gallery,” she said.

Still being worked on

The next steps for the building are still being worked on, Fields said. According to a City Hall-produced project page, the third phase including programming mix and financial modeling will take place in the fourth quarter of this year.

“No decision has been made about long-term use of the Armory and how it will be operated,” Fields wrote. “On an interim basis, the Arts Council is hosting arts-related classes, exhibits and performances in unused portions of the Armory’s basement, second and third floors.”

McSweeney said the eminent domain hasn’t affected her business’s daily operations, but she wouldn’t want to leave.

“We have to move cellos and basses and violins and equipment. We’ve had the same address for 15 years. We’d have to change all of our publicity material, we’d have to change our website,” she said. “We’d have to change everything.”

Covid “knocked the stuffing” out of the Armory Building, halting the building’s theater company shows, plays and orchestra concerts, McSweeney said, but it’s on its way back.

“I’m hoping that that kind of eclectic mix of artists and the art world will be able to come back if the rents aren’t so high,” McSweeney said, “and that it won’t just be a house for an art gallery or, you know, several. I’m just hoping that it’ll be more eclectic.”

  • An online public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Oct. 19 before the Somerville City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee. Information is here.