Sunday, June 16, 2024

Somerville senior economic development planner Ted Fields at a Wednesday meeting about the Armory arts building. (Photo: Claire Ogden)

A fourth and final meeting to gather feedback about the future of Somerville’s Armory arts building ended in confusion and anger Wednesday about the vague options the city was presenting, and how those options were even selected in the first place.

It felt to some participants exactly like the end of the last Somerville Armory Master Plan Advisory Committee process, when nine months ago the confusion and anger convinced city staff to start over.

The city has lacked a plan for the 27,000-square-foot building at 191 Highland Ave., which houses an art gallery, creative businesses and event spaces run by the nonprofit Arts at the Armory, since taking the building from the Sater brothers in 2021. In the meantime, the Somerville Arts Council has been met with accusations of mismanagement from tenants, and at the meeting, Rachel Nadkarni, the city’s director of economic development, emphasized that management of the Armory is not part of city staff’s official job description.

Despite being billed as a “community meeting,” the gathering held by Somerville Arts Council gave the vast majority of the allotted time to a staff presentation of a slide deck, leaving a small amount of time for discussion.

Eliminating options

Staff presented three options that arose from a research process with the New York consultancy Create Today: that a nonprofit govern the space; that a quasi-municipal trust be in charge; or that a city department be explicitly and solely tasked with governance of the Armory. (The nonprofit option could be a new organization started by the city, or an existing one, SAC director Gregory Jenkins clarified. This option would operate similarly to Cambridge’s Foundry, staff said, describing it as a nonprofit that starts with governmental support that phases out.)

Like the process nine months ago, which presented two unpopular options with Create Today itself seeming to reject one – because the city running the Armory was not a municipal “core competency” – this meeting proposed three options that seemed to be really two: Nadkarni clarified partway through the meeting that, in the short term, the nonprofit and city department options were the only two options that were really on the table.

Based on a council-designed chart with at-times vague ratings of the pros and cons of each option, with the distinction between short-term and long-term futures for the Armory not made clear, Nadkarni also said that the nonprofit option “has the least durability of mission.” 

Quasi-municipal “chimera”

What remained was the quasi-municipal trust option, which would require a yearslong process of legislative creation – something Jenkins said has not been done. Jenkins compared the legislative mechanism of operating similarly to a stadium or convention center, which operates independently and can take donations, but still has some state oversight. 

Partway through the meeting, one community member shared concerns about weighing in on the three options when there are no examples of the quasi-municipal community trust.

“I would like to have a lawyer in the room,” one community member said. The quasi-municipal trust “is a chimera or a unicorn. It just doesn’t exist yet. And we don’t have an idea of the timeline.” 

Nonprofits take exception

Arts at the Armory co-director Stephanie Scherpf told staff: “You’ve predetermined the options that we’re talking about tonight. This is written from a city government point of view and you’ve made a lot of assumptions about nonprofits and what they can or cannot do.” 

Worse, according to comments by Out of the Blue gallery owner Parama Chattopadhyay after the meeting, the presenters were “making insulting comments about nonprofits” despite the presence of herself and Scherpf.

Several Armory tenants spoke, complaining about the frustration and lack of transparency they have experienced with city governance the past two years. Chattopadhyay said that “Every single one of the artists is in jeopardy … because no one has any sense of what is going on.” One community member expressed the desire for a cooperative, tenant-led model of governance.

Ultimately, meeting attendees’ concerns were quieted so staff could get through their slide deck. 

“A kind of deja vu”

Scherpf wrote later in a post-meeting statement on the Arts at the Armory’s website that “We, along with most in attendance, were under the impression that this was to be a meeting for the city to listen to the community and collect feedback on ideas. Instead, in a kind of deja vu harkening back to the city-led community meetings in July-August 2023, city staff presented three city-controlled options … created by the city to keep the city in charge of ownership, management and operations.”

This was essentially confirmed by Jenkins, who emphasized that a goal has been to create a form of governance that is “independent from the tenants, I think,” he said. 

With the community portion of the process apparently over, the next step in a project timeline is identified as drafting a master plan for review in the summer. The master plan is to be finalized and submitted to Mayor Katjana Ballantyne in the fall. “Once the master plan is finished, the Economic Development Division and the Arts Council will quickly pivot to implementation,” the timeline says.

Call to restart the restart

Scherpf wrote in her post-meeting statement that the meeting was “a charade for the city to steamroll their own agenda to attempt to control the Armory,” she said. “If the mayor follows the plan that comes out of this process she will be ill-advised and going against what 95 percent of the broader community wants.”

“This could have been a highly collaborative process that would have resulted in finding a place for everyone seeking arts use space at the Armory,” Scherpf wrote. “This opportunity still exists if the property owner wants to finally engage in it.”

The meeting recording is here, and community members can contribute to a digital version of the meeting worksheets here.