Friday, June 14, 2024

Somerville’s Armory on June 22. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Somerville is rounding the corner on plans to reorganize the Armory building as a cultural community center. The building is already a hub for the city’s arts scene, but under ownership of the city, it’s getting an operational makeover and planning to get public feedback this summer.

“The Armory is the crown jewel of the city,” said Gregory Jenkins, director of the Somerville Arts Council. “It needs to function as a sphere for nonprofit businesses in the arts as well as a community space that’s accessible to all. That’s a very complex process.”

Last week marked a year since the Somerville Armory Master Plan Advisory Committee convened for the first time to reimagine a successful Armory with the help of New York-based consultant Create Today. The eight-person committee, made up of four artists and four city officials, agreed that the building should be resourced to cultivate local arts but also support non-arts uses such as the popular winter farmer’s market.

“Somerville is a city of renters with small spaces and not a lot of community spaces. Places like the Armory could be the extra bedroom that none of us have. You can invite your friends over to have meet-ups, attend an event or grab a cup of coffee. It’s a place where we can gather and be together,” one community member told the advisory committee.

With lessons and feedback from stakeholder interviews and focus groups, case studies of comparable building designs and environmental scans to identify how the Armory operates within the city’s arts ecosystem, one thing is clear: A lot rides on the success of this building.

“I think we can meet the community’s expectations,” Jenkins said. “We have residential units, basement space for bands to play, a massive performance hall … It will be tricky and plans won’t be perfect, but it will be something that fully contributes to the community.”

Different visions

Expectations for the building differ among visitors, neighbors, tenants and artists. According to findings from the focus group summary, there is a divide between increasing the operational focus to support artists versus serving the needs of the community. “Participants were split between ‘neutral’ and ‘excited’ to see the Armory serve as a ‘multicultural center’ that features artists, performances and activities that showcase the diverse cultures and communities of Somerville,” the report said.

A draft of the pro forma operations shows the city considering five models for the building. In four out of five, the city retains ownership and, to varying degrees, shares the risks and responsibilities of programming and operating with other organizations. The final approach has the city selling to a third-party owner and absolving itself of all involvement.

The city has asked the consultant to expand the plan scope to “examine multiple organizational models, which will slightly prolong the project,” said Ted Fields, senior economic development planner for Somerville. The city plans multiple public meetings for the summer, virtually and in person, to review the operational models, he said. There could be more models coming.

Once a light infantry building for the Massachusetts State Guard, the Armory houses 22,000 feet of usable arts space that includes a 400-person performance hall, a cafe, artist residencies and a variety of creative tenants. Arts at the Armory, the building’s anchored programming tenant, holds around 750 events yearly, drawing thousands of visitors through the castle doors on Highland Avenue.

Acquired during pandemic

The city acquired the building for $5.9 million through eminent domain in 2021, after officials learned its owners were considering using the building to host a tech company or small-scale manufacturer, a kind of pandemic pivot.

Former Mayor Joseph Curtatone “was really determined to make it a cultural center,” Jenkins said, but “I don’t think anyone would have taken on running it at that point.”

A project roadmap from Create Today described the arts operator Joseph Sater as a “hostile seller,” and the ownership transition as “difficult.” Parama Chattopadhyay and Jason Berube, longtime friends of Sater’s, contended in an unpublished interview this reporter conducted for Cambridge Day that the city was eyeing the Armory for years and saw the pandemic as an opportunity to seize the building.

Two years into its tenure as landlord, the city has faced challenges maintaining and managing the building. At 120 years old, the property has a growing list of needed minor repairs  being worked through by the Department of public Works, including rodent infestations, faulty door locks, leaking ceilings, a pothole-ridden parking lot and temperature-control issues.

“At this moment, I don’t think it would be viable for the city to manage the Armory building, and I would be very careful pursuing that option in the future,” city councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad said. “As we improve our building management, we can reconsider, but for now our priorities should be in our municipal and school buildings,” which also have problems: The Winter Hill Community Innovation School building was closed June 2 after a piece of concrete fell on a stairwell.

Maintenance issues

While last year it appeared the city was tasking a 69-year-old tube-amp tech to watch over the building  and perform minor repairs, the Armory has seen more attention lately.

“We’ve seen increased responsiveness and action from DPW,” said Stephanie Scherpf, co-director and chief executive of Arts at the Armory. She said she met months ago with Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and Jill Lathan, commissioner of the department. “Since that time they’re starting to make progress on a list of repairs. We have a maintenance person in the building three times a week.” Department staff have repaired numerous ceiling leaks, and are working to repair other ceiling and temperature-control issues. Workers have relined the parking lot, but have not fixed the pot holes.

Beyond patching up the building, the city has to repair its relationship with the Armory’s tenants.

“The Armory has been an arts center for years, for over a decade, for longer than that, and I don’t think the city has any real acknowledgement of all the things that have happened in this building,” one tenant said.

Lines of communication

According to the summary report, “tenants expressed ongoing challenges with the space, including vague or ambiguous management, no clear lines of communication and maintenance and operational issues.”

Tenants also occupy a difficult position in weighing into the city’s plans.

“We’re an interested party,” said Scherpf, speaking for Arts at the Armory. “Our goal in this is to secure a long-term lease and gain some stability. That can be challenging because we have the most expertise in this space – we’ve been able to try things out, experiment and find what’s working. We’ve helped identify what the community needs. But in order to have a neutral process, we haven’t heard from the city as much as we’d like.”

“There’s a lot of collective experience and knowledge in the building between tenants, and the city has not availed itself of it in the name of a more objective process,” Scherpf said. “These consultants are based out of New York, so they don’t have a lot of context of the ecosystem here.”

version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville Wire.