Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Somerville Media Center in Union Square. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

A former firehouse in Union Square is being cleared out by Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne before its two tenants, both nonprofits, have secured new homes.

The Somerville Media Center is scrambling to prevent disruptions to its programs as the city moves to empty 90-92 Union Square, according to a Thursday press release from Kat Powers, the center’s executive director.

The Media Center will not be able to begin operations in new space before Aug. 31, the date that Ballantyne has ordered the former firehouse to be empty. “We are working with our partners to find temporary locations for our youth program, our producers [and] negotiating a commercial lease for another location in Somerville to rebuild SMC’s television studios, its Internet radio station Boston Free Radio, and youth and adult education spaces as soon as possible,” Powers said. 

The city’s move also ejects the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers from the building before it has replacement space. “It will be virtually impossible to meet the city’s current deadline to vacate the building by the end of August, despite our willingness to downsize,” chief executive Paulo Pinto said. “We have shared this concern with city officials and hope they will allow us to extend our stay until we can find a sustainable location in the city.”

MAPS, founded in 1993, advocates for and provides health, education and social services to Brazilian, Cabo Verdean, Portuguese and other Portuguese-speaking communities.

The nonprofit is going from low municipal-space rent to private rent in a city where property values have exploded in recent years. The Media Center hasn’t been charged rent, according to a city spokesperson.

There was no immediate comment from Denise Taylor, director of communications and community engagement for the city and senior policy adviser to the mayor. An email seeking comment was sent to Taylor on Wednesday; on Thursday, she did not answer her phone and her voice mail was full. The phone number to which she referred urgent questions did not pick up and its voice mailbox was not set up. After publication, Taylor reached out to say the city disagreed with how some were characterizing the situation at the firehouse.

“We’re offering them everything they wanted and better,” Taylor said of negotiations with the Media Center. “We’re getting ready to send them those options tomorrow.”

Deterioration is claimed

The clock tower at 90-92 Union Square, Somerville, is water damaged, according to a May report. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The reason for shutting down the Union Square building was explained to the City Council in a July 28 memo from Ballantyne.

A structural engineering report says the building has “undergone additional, concerning deterioration since the initial assessment of the building in fall 2019,” according to the letter from Ballantyne. “The Somerville superintendent of Inspectional Services has reviewed the findings and has required the building to be vacated no later than Aug. 31, 2023, due to the increasing risk to the structure with each new round of precipitation.”

“Recent findings no longer allow further occupancy,” the letter says, putting the estimated costs of repairs at $7 million to $10 million while “numerous city buildings, including schools and City Hall, are ahead of this building on the priority list for capital projects.” No such funding is available to the city within the next five years at a minimum.

Ground floor still in good condition

It’s unclear what findings the memo refers to. An assessment of the building by the firm CambridgeSeven from May 15 discusses the deterioration of the building and its clock tower from snow and rain, but says that since a review in 2021 “there appears to have been no significant changes to the basic structural systems of the building” and that some repairs since 2019 “in general … appear to have been successful.”

The “ground floor remains in good condition,” according to CambridgeSeven, leaving open an option that its tenant – the Somerville Media Center – stay in place. But the kind of repairs the building needs is usually done in unoccupied buildings, and if the Somerville Media Center stayed there would have to be a “carefully designed” protective structure installed at its entryway. The city says it will soon put up protective scaffolding that is not called for in the CambridgeSeven report.

From MAPS’ perspective, “we feel that the current state of the building is not that different than in the past,” Pinto said. “Throughout the years, we have informed the city many times about roof leaks and other needed repairs … Regretfully, the city hasn’t been willing or able to proactively address those needs.”

Taylor said late Thursday that the report’s findings were being misinterpreted, and that the actions of city staff showed the true urgency of the situation.

No more reprieves

The nonprofits were told in 2019 that they would have to leave, but were granted reprieves during the Covid pandemic. Separately, grant agreement negotiations led by Taylor recently got underway to determine funding for the Somerville Media Center.

MAPS has been in the building for more than 45 years, Pinto said. The Media Center has been there for 38 years, according to Powers, and was the first community access television station in Massachusetts. The offices were the site of the first national teleconference for the deaf, the first lesbian soap opera on access TV and some of the earliest panels on transgender youth, according to a Thursday email that included other highlights: “It was also the starting point for such treasured recording artists as Tracy Chapman, and it remains the home of the longest continuously produced access show in the United States, ‘Dead Air Live.’”

The Media Center has space to move to near mass transit, but a lease is not signed and cannot be signed quickly enough to allow for leaving the Union Square building by Sept. 1, said Jesse Buckley, its board chair.

That’s because the city, in the negotiations being led by Taylor, is trying to claw back funding agreed to in a Feb. 13 press release from Ballantyne.

Franchise-fee agreement

The work of the Media Center and the city’s separate educational and government television is funded with franchise fees from the cable companies serving the city: Comcast and Astound, formerly known as RCN.

The mayor said in February that the city, subject to council approval, would allot all of the annual 5 percent franchise fees to public access rather than one-third under a contract with the Media Center and “increase the Media Center’s share of equipment funding from one-third to one-half of equipment funds received on top of the franchise fee.” The city and education channels, meanwhile, would operate through the general fund of the city instead of through the fees.

The council was aboard, Buckley said. Then Taylor proposed a change in terms April 5 that has led to protracted and unfinished negotiations, including three or four sit-down sessions – the most recent of which was Tuesday – even though the council voted on the next fiscal year budget June 22.

“This is a frustrating and disappointing outcome,” council president Ben Ewen-Campen said Thursday. The council has been essentially unanimous in “trying to make this no happen for years” and members are “often furious about this.”

Clawback means missed minimum

That change lets the city take back franchise fee money from the Media Center for education and government channels if the City Council gives less in the general fund, as Buckley explained it. Taylor said later that she also disagreed with this interpretation, calling it simply wrong.

Yet “the budget’s written by the mayor,” Ewen-Campen said. In regard to the disposition of 90-92 Union Square, the council “has no formal role in any of this.” The body is also on summer break, and doesn’t meet until Aug. 24 – days before the nonprofits will be out on the street.

While Taylor said the Media Center was about to get the funding it needs “and more,” during a conversation the previous day Buckley felt it had been left in a difficult position.

“We have what we’re calling a minimum viable funding floor that allows us to pay the rent [in a new location] – and without the assurance of a minimal viable funding floor, we don’t have that ability,” Buckley said. The deadline for the Media Center to vacate and relocate forces “the Media Center to perform a complicated move when the entire city of Metro Boston is moving, another fly in the ointment.”

The relationship between MAPs and the city is simpler, and Pinto said the city has even appropriated approximately $100,000 to support its relocation. “However, this is a short-term solution, and we need a long-term sustainable plan for MAPS to continue to exist in the city and assist its residents,” Pinto said. “We can’t help but feel that we’re being pushed out of a central location that our organization and our community have called home for many decades.”

No tenant

US2 is a major developer in Somerville‘s Union Square and submitted a proposal for the neighboring firehouse building with a partner in 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Because the CambridgeSeven report doesn’t specify an emergency for ground-floor tenants and there is no funding for repairs to begin, the reasoning for the city-imposed Aug. 31 deadline is unknown.

The city went looking for a “moonshot” benefactor – one that would fix the property on its own dime and stay to run it as a city tenant – in 2021.

There was only one response to the request for proposals, and it came from US2, the developer already remaking much of Union Square around the former firehouse. The partner in the proposal, and future tenant, was The Fab Foundation, a makerspace-themed nonprofit born out of MIT in 2009. Its website promotes plans for Fab Union, a flagship “community-focused center for teaching, learning, research and economic opportunity” to be based at 90-92 Union Square. 

The Fab Foundation didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for US2, Alexandra Sullivan, said Tuesday that “Fab Foundation, with the support of US2, responded to the city’s RFP,” but that the city “reviewed the proposal but did not move it forward.” Questions were referred to Somerville officials.

This post was updated Aug. 10, 2023, with comments from City of Somerville spokesperson Denise Taylor.