City to revisit original five proposed operational models
(Somerville Wire) – After three community meetings on the Armory Master Plan with consultant Create Today stirred up confusion and anxiety, and placed the Center for the Arts at the Armory in jeopardy, the nonprofit mobilized, holding a community meeting on Tuesday August 15 to educate the public on its work and to clear up the planning process—as best it could.
It remains unclear how and why the City decided to pitch just two of the five Armory operational models to the public. Director of Economic Development Rachel Nadkarni dodged the question and Create Today CEO Kate Scorza Ingram refused an interview. But facing heat from the community, the Somerville Armory Master Plan Advisory Committee has agreed to re-examine the original five.
“We went into this most recent set of meetings with two operating models to check in with the community about. 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,” said Somerville Director of Economic Development Rachel Nadkarni.
But CAA Armory Co-Director, Jess White, characterized the process differently. “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 and requested a meeting with the mayor last October and November, and finally got the meeting in March of this year. 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,” she said. “The meeting with the mayor improved our communications with Jill Lathan [of the Department of Public Works], but 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,” White said.
Nadkarni said the City is going to make additional efforts to connect with tenants moving forward. “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.
CAA’s decision to hold a meeting and circulate a petition was a break from a long silence. “We’ve stood by to see how the process played out,” White said. 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 night 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. While the planning process for the Armory wages on, tenants lack stability in the interim.
“After the City took possession of the Armory, we were basically without a lease until August of 2021. At that point we were presented with a legally dubious use & 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 of 2022. The nonprofit went another seven months petitioning the city for a new agreement. Just days before the Mass Cultural Council’s grant deadline, CAA received a new use & occupancy agreement in February of 2023. By that point, the City had doubled CAA’s rent. Seven months into its fiscal year, White explained, CAA had budgeted its rental expense according to the 2022 rate. The City did not accept an offer from CAA to reserve the performance spaces in exchange for credit towards rent, she added. The use & occupancy agreement from February of 2023, just expired on June 30. Currently CAA is without a use & occupancy agreement and lease.
Asked whether the City’s management is impeding operations, White said CAA is charging on. “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.”
That worst-case scenario is becoming reality for other nonprofits in Somerville, as the City has pushed Somerville Media Center and Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers out of their offices in a former firehouse in Union Square.
“Each one of these organizations have been incredibly valuable partners to the City for decades. It’s quite frustrating to advocate for each one of these. In some cases, it’s not just a matter of relocation, but capitulating to wealthier interests. The locations of these organizations matter. They have connections with their neighbors. It’s an insult to injury for folks losing their actual neighbors to unaffordability in this city, that these organizations are threatened,” said City Councilor Willie Burnley Jr.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire