Who Gets to Stay?
(Somerville Wire) – The dust is beginning to settle after the City presented two heavy-handed operational models for the building that placed the tenants, particularly the Center for the Arts at the Armory, in uncertain waters. And while details emerge on the City’s intentions behind its choice of models, a challenge looms to subsidize arts space without creating stagnation.
In May, consultant Create Today presented the Somerville Armory Master Plan Advisory Committee with five proposed models for operating the armory building on Highland Avenue. Months later, without further communication or justification from the City, the public was presented with two models and told to provide feedback during a series of community meetings that began July 24. Tenants were notified of the five models, and the choice to pursue two, just days before the first community meeting. Under both models, the city would own the building—fully operating and programming it in the case of the first and choosing tenants to program it in the second.
“Nothing is a done deal yet. We’re trying to find a solution that’s fair to the tenants and the community. We now need to think through a leasing structure and how the community can get the most out of this space despite all the competing needs,” Somerville Arts Council Director Greg Jenkins said. “We went with two opposing models to provide the most spread. There are groups that want more of a community center, while others are frustrated that the City is involved at all.” Jenkins explained the City was initially supposed to pick one model. The Advisory Committee pushed for two models to accommodate the range of constituent feedback.
Findings from a March focus group report noted a “divide between an increased focus on supporting artists and the need to serve the community.” Some constituents wanted more youth-programming and community-focused programming, while others advocated a more artist-centric approach, including artist residencies, especially for BIPOC artists.
“On one hand you want to subsidize the arts, but you don’t want to create stagnation.” Jenkins said after the most recent community meeting, Tuesday, August 1. Jenkins said the City might have to consider how to limit leases to maintain energy and novelty in the building. It’s a complex process that the City has not begun studying.
But no one is leaving the Armory, yet. “There would have to be something huge for the City to push out the Center for the Arts at the Armory. I’d imagine some of the other folks will still be here in the future too,” Jenkins said.
The CAA is still planning a community meeting on August 15 to educate the public on the nonprofit’s work and how to get involved in the master planning process.
“A lot of people have questions about who we are, how this complex planning process works, and why it’s happening. We have to mobilize the community, educate them on what’s being proposed, and ensure they have the opportunity to decide what’s in their best interest,” CAA CEO Stephanie Scherpf said.
Scherpf believes the consultant and City could also benefit from consulting the tenants more thoroughly. “The City did not engage the experience and expertise of the tenants that were there when they bought the building. That was a huge missed opportunity. Nor did they really look at other good research presented or other viable models to look at when creating this type of a plan. I think the process has really suffered—they’re trying to create something from scratch,” Scherpf said.
Senior Economic Development Planner Ted Fields described the process differently, but vaguely. “The City has engaged current Armory tenants since the start of the Master Plan process to take advantage of their unique knowledge and experience in working in the facility,” he said.
Scherpf hasn’t found the City’s efforts sufficient. “We have had very little opportunity to speak. We had one hour and a half interview with Create Today, answering kind of open-ended questions. We tried to make it more pointed and focused, but I think that has been one of the challenges,” Scherpf said, explaining the City and out-of-state consultants haven’t provided opportunities to meaningfully engage.
“Stephanie has created a lot of stability in that building. We know they want to stay and that’s excellent,” SAC Director Greg Jenkins said of CAA. “But we have to go through a public process in order to lease the space out.”
Many attendees at the three community meetings thus far, shared Scherpf’s criticisms. The two proposed models lacked essential details, the sticker exercises were restricting, abstract, and limited in possibilities. Worse, the attendees couldn’t discern the City’s endgame, let alone where it was in the planning process.
“We entered into this master plan process to avoid preconceived notions about the best way to manage the armory. As a public community arts center, we’re really looking to fill as many of the art needs and needs of the public, going forward. That’s why we’re doing the study. And we’re looking at a range of operating models to avoid preconceptions and to cover all our bases and to do our due diligence. We’re looking at the two models we’ve identified to get a baseline analysis, it does not mean we won’t look at other models. We will incorporate parts of those into the final recommendations of the plan if they’re suited to,” Senior Economic Development Planner Ted Fields said at the conclusion of Tuesday night’s community meeting.
Some stakeholders have found the demand for on-the-spot feedback overwhelming, given the complexity of the planning. Others readily criticized the City’s black-and-white approach. Jenkins said that community input is an ongoing process and that the public is welcome to reach out. Contact information for City officials overseeing the Armory Master Plan is on the SomerVoice page.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire