Sunday, June 16, 2024

Somerville senior economic development planner Ted Fields addresses a July 24 community meeting about the Armory arts building master plan. Stephanie Scherpf, co-director and chief executive of the tenant the Center for Arts at the Armory, is looking at him at left. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Facing heat from the community, the Somerville Armory Master Plan Advisory Committee is bringing back options for the community arts buildings that could avoid forcing out its tenants.

“Given the feedback received, and the strong preference to explore other options, we’ll be revisiting all of the possible operating models. Our goal is to be responsive. So that’s the next step,” Somerville director of economic development Rachel Nadkarni said.

The city seized the Armory in May 2021 from its owners to “preserve the facility for arts uses,” but stayed quiet for more than 17 months about what that might mean in the long term.

Three recent community meetings on a plan for the Armory presented community members with two models: the city retaining ownership of the building, clearing its current tenants and acting as its sole operator and arts programmer; or one more like how the building has run for nearly two decades, with tenants programming and operating it – but with the city deciding who stays.

The prospect of the city owning and operating the building drew significant backlash, and even Kate Scorza Ingram, chief executive of consultant Create Today, said during presentations that it wasn’t within the city’s core competencies.

Three other models – including an outright sale – were eliminated before the community meetings. It remains unclear how and why the city decided to pitch just two operational models to the public, one of which was questioned by its own consultant. Nadkarni dodged the question and Ingram refused an interview. 

The process was also unclear to the nonprofit Center for the Arts at the Armory, an anchor tenant that programs its performance spaces, co-director Jess White said.

“They formed the master plan committee and had a total of three meetings with CAA, but we weren’t really given the chance to give a lot of feedback. We conducted research on our own,” White said.

The center asked for a meeting with the mayor in October and November, and finally got one in March. “We put this extensive information together and never heard a word after that. There’s been no movement or recognition from the city on that,” White said. “We’re not being brought into the planning … trying to get info on where we stand, who is making decisions, even who chose the two options – when we ask the direct questions, we don’t get an answer.”

Taking action

Nadkarni said the city is going to make additional efforts to connect with tenants. “We’re listening and continue to listen,” she said. “Community decision-making is challenging, and we are right in the middle of the discussion. Our process is going to have a next iteration and we’ll be connecting more with all of the tenants as part of the continued conversation.”

After the city’s meetings, the Center for the Arts at the Armory held its own on Tuesday and circulated a petition. The actions were a break from a long silence in which Parama Chattopadhyay, the owner of the Armory’s Out of the Blue Art Gallery, often seemed like the sole questioner of the city’s ownership practices and plans.

“We’ve stood by to see how the process played out,” said White, of the Center for the Arts at the Armory. But after recent events, the group is shifting into a more active role with community members behind it.

About 60 people attended the meeting Tuesday in person, and another 40 tuned in through Zoom. City councilors, artists, arts activists, Armory tenants and community members spoke out in favor of a third-party operator model and lauded CAA’s work.

Uncertainty for a nonprofit

White said city ownership has meant uncertainty for the nonprofit.

“After the city took possession of the Armory, we were basically without a lease until August 2021. At that point we were presented with a legally dubious use and occupancy lease agreement that we were asked to sign. And though we tried to negotiate those terms, in the end we weren’t given any choice. We were basically told to sign it if we wanted any kind of document that could stand in for a lease while we were applying for grants and loans,” White said.

That agreement expired in June 2022. The nonprofit went another seven months petitioning the city for a replacement, White said. Just days before the Mass Cultural Council’s grant deadline in February, a new agreement arrived – but by that point, the city had doubled the nonprofit’s rent, and the city was budgeting rental expenses at 2022 rates. The city did not accept an offer to reserve performance spaces in exchange for credit toward rent.

The use and occupancy agreement from February expired June 30, leaving the center without an agreement or lease, White said.

Nonprofits in peril

CAA charges on, though. “Our calendar is getting fuller than ever. We’re going to continue in that way, but we don’t have visibility into the future. That means building strategic and operational plans can only go so far. And there’s always that fear of the worst-case scenario,” White said.

The timing is striking. The city is shutting its 90-92 Union Square firehouse, citing dangers from its deterioration, which leaves two other nonprofits without offices in which to conduct business as of Aug. 31: the Somerville Media Center and Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers. The nonprofits’ property must be cleared out by the end of September.

“Each one of these organizations have been incredibly valuable partners to the city for decades. It’s quite frustrating,” city councilor Willie Burnley Jr. said. “It’s insult to injury for folks losing their actual neighbors to unaffordability in this city that these organizations are threatened.”

In late January, Somerville joined with Cambridge and Boston in a $140,000 project with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council called Making Space for Art to better protect existing arts and cultural spaces and to identify opportunities and partnerships that lead to the creation of more, according to a Feb. 1 press release.

The nonprofit Somerville Boxing Club has also been asked to make way for students being placed in the Edgerly Education Building between Cross and Otis streets for the school year while safety issues at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School are addressed. Board member Bruce Desmond said the club’s doors were locked, however, because “the club has been in disarray for the past few months … not because of any desire by the city.”

A version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville Wire.