Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A peaceful side yard at Somerville’s Armory building seen June 22, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Somerville officials shaping the future of the city’s Armory arts building have reassurances to offer after a tumultuous meeting in May that ended in confusion and anger, with a presentation of options as unpopular as from a process nine months earlier. Those went over so poorly that the city decided to start over.

One cause of unhappiness is that plans seemed to uproot and end The Center for the Arts at the Armory, the nonprofit anchor tenant and main programmer since the 27,000-square-foot building at 191 Highland Ave. opened in 2008. The Out of the Blue art gallery and other tenants have also expressed concern about their future, and in recent weeks each has talked about leaving.

The center’s leaders have said they are considering an exit strategy if there’s no plan soon, while the head of the gallery has said she would accept relocation funds.

“No one’s looking to kick anyone out,” said Somerville Arts Council executive director Gregory Jenkins in a call. He and other officials wanted to clarify the city’s position after the May 15 meeting. “But the building is not just Arts at the Armory. I don’t think it’s in the best interest to turn the building over to one tenant. There’s a reason to have a third party that isn’t caught up in the day-to-day.”

Somerville Arts Council executive director Gregory Jenkins at an April 10, 2016, meeting held at the Armory building. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Somerville Arts Council is still moving forward with the planning process – toward what, it’s not totally clear. Though the May meeting was described as the fourth and final one to gather public feedback about the building’s future, Jenkins said his team plans to do “one last push” of community feedback throughout the summer.

All feedback will be consolidated into a plan that presents the different models for future governance. According to the arts council website, the plan will be ready in the fall.

At the meeting, attendees were skeptical and confused about the three options presented for governance by a nonprofit; a dedicated city department; or a quasi-municipal trust that lacks an existing model.

The nonprofit option could be a new organization started by the city, or an existing one, Jenkins said; yet Rachel Nadkarni, the city’s director of economic development, told participants the nonprofit option was unlikely because it “has the least durability of mission.”

There is suspicion among some tenants that the Somerville Arts Council is trying to become the governing body of the Armory and incorporate the building into its SomArt spaces program – though staff don’t seem to be jumping at the idea to manage the space, acknowledging the lack of financial or staffing capacity to continue managing the building.

Jenkins said there has been an ongoing misunderstanding about the nature of the master plan: It’s not about day-to-day operations, he emphasized, but rather about long-term governance.

Despite concerns about a lack of precedent for the quasi-governmental municipal trust, Jenkins emphasized that a trust could serve the entire Somerville arts ecosystem, not just the Armory. If another building came under threat, Jenkins said, the trust could come in and help that space, too. The legislative process to form a municipal trust could take two to three years or more, but in the meantime, Jenkins said that the city could issue five-year leases that could eventually be transferred to the trust.

There are things that can be done to improve governance now for the building. “No matter what we need to do, we need to create an advisory board,” Jenkins said. “The whole point is to try to figure out how we make sure it’s secured and maintained. It was running on fumes before [and] does need subsidy.”

Jenkins lamented that the community meetings “became a power play” between Arts at the Armory and the council, “and it didn’t need to be that way.”

Tenant concerns

Co-director of the Center for Arts at the Armory Stephanie Scherpf speaks at a July 24 meeting about the future of the building. (Photo: Marc Levy)

For tenants such as Arts at the Armory and the Out of the Blue Gallery, stability is the main concern.

The co-directors of the center, Stephanie Scherpf and Jess White, expect to meet July 18 with Mayor Katjana Ballantyne. In a letter to the mayor, they ask for a minimum one-year renewable lease agreement and release of a clear plan for a tenant-led Armory by no later than Oct. 1.

The center has delivered two proposals to the city to manage the Armory building in return for a rent credit, “but so far those proposals have also gone unanswered,” they said.

The center wants a chance to manage the building, Scherpf said, and in the long term perhaps own it. “There are many successful models of both city-owned buildings that are run by a nonprofit anchor tenant as well as models of buildings that are owned and managed by nonprofit organizations. We have the history and stability to execute this quickly and have supplied the city with proposals and data, yet they have been unwilling to engage in any conversation,” Scherpf said.

The city has lacked a plan for the building since taking the building through a $5 million eminent domain land seizure in May 2021. Nadkarni said in May that management of the Armory is not part of city staff’s official job description; maintenance and upkeep problems have followed.

“We are seeking stability. Over the past three years that the city has owned the building, we have been without any building governance or management,” Scherpf said.

Lack of clarity on leases

That includes around a year and half in which the center has been operating without a lease.

In documents sent to the center June 18 and shared with Cambridge Day, the city offered license agreements that “have no defined duration,” said Ted Fields, of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development, though “the city anticipates Arts at the Armory remaining in these spaces at least into summer of 2025.”

Out of the Blue Gallery owner Parama Chattopadhyay said her nonprofit has also struggled to stay in a space that the city said it seized so the arts had a home. She wanted the guarantee of at least two years in which the gallery is left alone to operate.

“During that time, SAC and the city should be finding places and working out relocation monies for us tenants that they obviously are trying to kick out the door. I believe that the center is doing just fine as is, the gallery just fine as is, and the last remaining tenants are doing just fine as is,” Chattopadhyay said.

The city understands where the tenants are coming from, Jenkins said. Artists often just want cheap rent and to not have to think about zoning and governance, and the goal is often just “give us space, make it reasonable and leave us alone.”

Warming center

That goal of peace was disrupted in another way over the winter.

The leaders of the center and Out of the Blue were upset about a warming center for the unhoused that was installed into the Armory in January – without notice, Chattopadhyay said.

A City Council Public Health and Public Safety Committee meeting on June 5 saw results of a survey of warming center users and volunteers, Armory tenants and staffers and other warming center advocates or collaborators. While the temporary shelter was seen as a warm and safe space, all had concerns over issues including a rushed and unprepared launch, a lack of blankets and beds, noncompliance with disabilities law, long intake processes, unsanitary conditions, poor communication and a lack of transportation. Many suggested choosing a different location in the future.

The Amory tenants were “subjected to a failed warming center that appears to be getting a permanent home at the Armory, against the wishes of the larger community and the unhoused that it seeks to serve,” Scherpf said. “The city has not been receptive to feedback and correction … Along the way, they have pitted the arts community against the unhoused.”

The center is better suited to oversee use of Armory space than the city, Scherpf and White said, calling it a misconception that city governance will lead to greater community access. While they have more than 700 events a year coming through the spaces they oversee, the second-floor unit used for the warming center and other arts council-controlled space “largely sits empty.”

Other Armory tenants, including Dead Moon Audio, Acoustic Strings of New England, and AudioTech Services, did not respond to requests for comment.

Chinanu Okoli contributed to this report.