Sunday, June 16, 2024

Joe Lynch speaks Monday at a meeting at Somerville’s Armory arts building. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As part of Somerville’s planning for the Armory, its white-painted fortress for the arts, community members gathered Monday to provide feedback on operational models, strongly opposing the notion of the city owning and running the building.

Set up in the Armory Café, project consultant Create Today presented community members with two models for consideration. Under the first, the city would retain ownership of the building, clearing its current tenants and acting as its sole operator and arts programmer. The second model is more like how the building has run for nearly two decades, with tenants programming and operating it – but the city would decide who stays.

Three other models – including an outright sale – were eliminated before the community meetings.

“This is not decided. These [options] are very black and white because this is for planning and modeling purposes,” Create Today founder Kate Scorza Ingram said. “This is not even to say that the city would necessarily go with one or the other, it could be somewhere blended between the two, but we wanted to share these two particular models as the ones the city is moving forward with examining through this process.”

A participant at Monday’s meeting decides where to place a sticker to show support for a statement. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Attendees questioned the approach. “Considering how early we are in the process, to not have a third option on the table seems like a mistake,” said Jack Perenick, Somerville City Council candidate for Ward 5.

But the prospect of the city owning and operating the building drew significant backlash.

“Option 1 is not really an option. For the city to maintain control over this building in an absolute way is not what we’ve envisioned. It was working with the arts community, working with Arts at the Armory, to develop programs that the community wanted,” said Joe Lynch, a former chair of the advisory board for The Center for Arts at the Armory – the building’s nonprofit anchor tenant since 2009 – and a current board member of the Somerville Media Center. It was Lynch who advocated for the city’s eminent domain purchase of the building in 2021.

A board proposing that the city of Somerville takes over running the Armory draws plenty of pink sticky notes Monday in opposition and few yellow sticky notes in support. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Doubt that the city was up to the task was heard from Jess White, co-director of the Center for Arts at the Armory. “We’ve seen multiple issues just with the city’s maintenance and how this building’s been basically neglected for a couple of years. And that’s caused a lot of structural issues. It’s caused a lot of other issues,” White said. “My other concern is with Option 2: I don’t know how many arts organizations could sustain a rental structure without having guidance [from the city] in terms of making the spaces affordable for the arts community.”

Create Today itself didn’t feel running the Armory was among a “core competency” of the city, and other attendees expanded on the downsides of a city-owned-and-operated model. A former member of the Somerville Arts Council said the council was strapped for time and resources and couldn’t take on additional responsibilities. Multiple speakers demanded more information on lease structures and a financial plan to ensure programming would be accessible and provide tenants peace of mind. And while some noted the democratic processes under city ownership could provide more diverse programming and equality, others feared the power of the ballot and changes in administration could turn the Armory into a volatile space.

“Ninety-five percent of the attendees at this meeting are against Option 1, and 5 percent are undecided because they don’t have enough information. That should give the city a very clear message,” Lynch said after the meeting.

Reaction online also ran cold against the idea a disruptive city-operated option. In a Facebook group exploring the idea of forming a Somerville artists union, Jenn Harrington commented: “When a developer comes in, tears down property and then offers luxury condos that current residents can’t afford, the public reasonably gets upset because the public was not considered. I don’t see the difference between what those kinds of developers are doing and what we did today. How can we provide public comment about the Armory’s future and not keep the current tenants of the building in mind?”

With such little detail provided at the Monday meeting, it seemed unclear whether the two models were to serve as thought experiments or inklings of actual proposed plans. Beyond their initial bad reaction to model one, many attendees wanted more information to form an educated opinion.

Boards displaying conceptual details of each model were placed around the room; attendees posted stickers to denote support in one feedback round and colored sticky notes in another. “This issue is too complex to think about via sticky notes,” one attendee wrote. A handful more denounced the lack of information.

Little known

During the presentation, attendees interrupted with questions: Where were the financial plans? Budgets for either model? That’s the next phase, Create Today said.

What city departments or officials would take care of programming? Who will answer to people? That’s up to the voters and city council to decide.

Would Arts at the Armory remain in option two as the anchor tenant? That was unknown.

How would the city promote accessibility to the space in option one? Also unknown.

Stephanie Scherpf, co-director and chief executive of the Center for Arts at the Armory, was disappointed in the process: “These models are basically two concepts. How, as a community, are we supposed to make a decision between these two things if there’s nothing here – after a year?”

Community feedback

Monday had two hourlong in-person community feedback meetings in the café, at noon and 4 p.m., while the Armory’s auditorium was in use by the Somerville Arts Council’s summer camp for kids. A third session will be held 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday by Zoom.

The city had to be urged to hold that virtual feedback session, said Jennifer McSweeney, whose Acoustic Strings of New England – a seller of instruments and music lessons – is a longtime Armory tenant. “All of Somerville is busy,” McSweeney said. “Who’s going to come to to these meetings in the middle of the day?” The meeting was capped at 40 people, but the room held less than 30 including presenters and city staff.

The Center for Arts at the Armory organization plans its own community meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 15 in the building’s performance hall, with a flyer about it saying that the nonprofit’s “only hope of survival is the adoption of the second model.”