Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Somernova innovation and community space is providing at least a temporary home to the Somerville Media Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A Somerville nonprofit has found a temporary home with a week to go until the 90-92 Union Square building housing its offices is closed to the public by city order.

Somernova, a 7.4-acre innovation campus and community space in Spring Hill, is providing space to the Somerville Media Center, which was based in a city-owned former fire station for 38 years. The locations are about a half-mile apart.

Rafi Properties, owner and operator of Somernova, “has really come through for us, showing that they are invested in our long-term success by providing temporary space for SMC to continue with our after-school program and other limited services while we are in the midst of a more permanent relocation,” said Jesse Buckley, president of the Somerville Media Center’s board. “The fact that our temporary home is so close to the space we plan to be building for the future makes a difficult time much easier. They are a true partner.”

Still lacking a next base of operations in Somerville is the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers, which was in the firehouse for more than 45 years but also must leave.

The nonprofits were told by city officials that their offices had to close to the public Aug. 31 for safety reasons. The organizations have another month to complete a move-out, city officials said. 

The Media Center will begin its move from the old firehouse next week and expects to begin limited operation at Somernova on Sept. 15, Buckley said. The center will take over a currently empty space at 12 Tyler St.

Further deterioration

After a July 28 communication about the situation at the firehouse to Somerville’s City Council, the city posted a clarifying press release Aug. 14. Both referred to an assessment of the building by the firm CambridgeSeven filed in May saying that “each rain or snow event allows more water to enter and to further deteriorate the structural roof framing. The longer repairs are delayed, the greater amount of repair and replacement of structural members will be required and the greater risk for failure of major structural elements supporting both the roof and the second floor.”

“We do not recommend any ‘no-build alternative’ or additional delay to address the water infiltration issues,” CambridgeSeven said, in what the city on Aug. 14 termed a “critical” note.

Yet there is no money budgeted or available for repairs anytime for at least the next five years, the city has said, and other city buildings are demanding attention too – and some even more urgently.

Scaffolding and a firefighter order

The city’s next immediate step will be to put up scaffolding to prevent hazards from bricks or other elements falling from the structure, building commissioner Nick Antanavica said in a phone call Aug. 15. The water damage has continued since the May report, he said, acknowledging that there was no specific line in the CambridgeSeven report expressing the danger that demanded an end to public use Aug. 31. It’s “a cumulative assessment,” he said.

“There has been additional degradation … and concern that if we have a heavy winter, that the trusses would not be able to handle the additional weight of the snow,” Antanavica said, noting an unusual hanging construction approach on a structure built in the late 1800s. The second floor could literally fall through the first floor into the basement, he said.

Because the firehouse is considered dangerous, “we’ve communicated with the fire department that there is to be an exterior approach if there’s an emergency at the building,” Antanavica said. That means “they won’t have any firefighters go into the building.”

“We do not want to take chances with people’s lives,” Antanavica said. 

There is no timeline for the firehouse scaffolding to go up, Antanavica said.

Negotiations continue

The nonprofits were told in 2019 that they would have to leave, but were granted reprieves during the Covid pandemic. Those ended with negotiations around funding for the Media Center incomplete, leaving the nonprofit in the position of trying to sign a lease for its next home without knowing a budget.

The city offered the SMC a deal that would boost its usual three-year city grant agreement by more than a projected $1 million, more than doubling the city’s contribution compared with the last city grant to $2.1 million over three years, though with a portion subject to annual City Council appropriation in years two and three, said Denise Taylor, director of communications and community engagement for the city and senior policy adviser to the mayor. She is leading negotiations from the city side. 

As the nonprofit sees it, the city negotiations are trying to claw back funding agreed to in a Feb. 13 press release from Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, which has left the SMC in a state of financial uncertainty at a crucial time, Buckley said.

The Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers, meanwhile, was awarded $103,000 in federal Covid relief funds to support the move of their offices within Somerville, Taylor said.

For a nonprofit looking for a home in Somerville, where real estate prices have exploded in recent years, the money is “a short-term solution,” said MAPS’ chief executive, Paulo Pinto. “Over the past year, we have been looking for an adequate commercial space in Somerville that we can rent within our budget, but so far, we have not had any success.”

There was no further information, a MAPS spokesperson said Thursday.