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Photo of the Armory courtesy of Arts at the Armory.
Photo of the Armory courtesy of Arts at the Armory.

City receives draft of operational models, planning community meetings for the summer

(Somerville Wire) – Somerville is rounding the corner on plans to reorganize the Armory building as a cultural community center. The building is already a central hub for the city’s arts scene, but under ownership of the City, it’s getting an operational makeover to ensure it meets the public’s needs into the future.

“The Armory is the crown jewel of the city,” said Gregory Jenkins, director of the Somerville Arts Council. “It needs to function as a sphere for nonprofit businesses in the arts as well as a community space that’s accessible to all. That’s a very complex process.”

Last week marked a year since the Somerville Armory Master Plan Advisory Committee convened for the first time to reimagine a successful Armory with the help of New York-based arts-space consultant Create Today. The eight-person committee, composed of four local artists and four city officials, concurred that the building should be resourced to cultivate local arts but also support non-arts uses such as the popular winter farmer’s market. 

“Somerville is a city of renters with small spaces and not a lot of community spaces. Places like the Armory could be the extra bedroom that none of us have. You can invite your friends over to have meet-ups, attend an event, or grab a cup of coffee. It’s a place where we can gather and be together,” one community member told the advisory committee.

With lessons and feedback from stakeholder interviews and focus groups, case studies of comparable building designs, and environmental scans to identify how the Armory operates within the city’s arts ecosystem, one thing is clear: a lot is riding on the success of this building.

“I think we can meet the community’s expectations,” Jenkins said. “We have residential units, basement space for bands to play, a massive performance hall… It will be tricky and plans won’t be perfect, but it will be something that fully contributes to the community.” 

The expectations of the building differ in some ways among the Armory’s visitors, neighbors, tenants, and artists. According to findings from the focus group summary, there is a divide between increasing the operational focus to support artists versus serving the needs of the community. “Participants were split between ‘neutral’ and ‘excited’ to see the Armory serve as a ‘multi-cultural center’ that features artists, performances, and activities that showcase the diverse cultures and communities of Somerville,” the report said. 

According to a draft of the pro forma operations shared with the Somerville Wire, the City is considering five operational models for the building. In four out of the five models, the city would retain ownership of the building and to a varying extent between each approach, share the risks and responsibilities of programming and operating the space with other organizations. The fifth proposed approach was for the City to sell the building to a third-party owner and absolve itself of all involvement. 

Ted Fields, senior economic development planner for Somerville, said “The City has requested our external consultant to expand the plan scope to examine multiple organizational models which will slightly prolong the project.” He added that the City will plan on holding multiple public meetings this summer, virtually and in person to review the operational models. There could be more models coming.

According to the Cambridge Day, the City of Somerville acquired the building for $5.9 million through eminent domain in 2021, after officials learned its owners were considering selling the building to a tech company or small-scale manufacturer.

Once a light infantry building for the Massachusetts State Guard, the Armory houses 22,000 feet of usable arts space that includes a 400-person performance hall, a cafe, artist residencies, and a variety of creative tenants. Arts at the Armory, the building’s anchored programming tenant, holds around 750 events per year, drawing thousands of visitors through the castle doors on Highland Avenue. 

“I don’t think anyone would have taken on running it at that point,” Jenkins said, noting the pandemic. “[Former Mayor Joseph Curtatone] was really determined to make it a cultural center,” he said.

A project roadmap document from Create Today described the renowned arts operator Joseph Sater as a “hostile seller,” and the ownership transition as “difficult.” Parama Chattopadhyay and Jason Berube, both longtime friends of Sater’s, contended in an unpublished interview this reporter conducted for the Cambridge Day that the City was eyeing the Armory for years and saw the pandemic as an opportunity to seize the building, but details are unclear. 

Two years into its tenure as landlord, the City has faced challenges maintaining and managing the building. At 120 years old, the property has a growing list of needed minor repairs, that DPW is working through, including: rodent infestations, faulty door locks, leaking ceilings, a pothole-ridden parking lot, and temperature-control issues. 

“At this moment, I don’t think it would be viable for the city to manage the Armory building and I would be very careful pursuing that option in the future,” Councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad said. “As we improve our building management, we can reconsider, but for now our priorities should be in our municipal and school buildings,” she said.

While last year, it appeared the City was tasking a 69-year-old tube-amp tech to watch over the building and perform minor repairs, the Armory has seen more attention lately. 

“We’ve seen increased responsiveness and action from DPW,” said Stephanie Scherpf, co-director and CEO of Arts at the Armory who met with Mayor Ballantyne and Jill Lathan, commissioner of the Department of Public Works, months ago. “Really since that time they’re starting to make progress on a list of repairs. We have a maintenance person in the building three times a week,” Scherpf said. DPW has repaired numerous ceiling leaks, and is working to repair additional ceiling issues and temperature-control issues. Workers have relined the parking lot but have not fixed the pot holes.

But beyond patching up the building, the City has to repair its relationship with the Armory’s tenants.

“The Armory has been an arts center for years, for over a decade, for longer than that, and I don’t think the City has any real acknowledgement of all the things that have happened in this building,” one tenant said. 

According to the summary report, “tenants expressed ongoing challenges with the space, including vague or ambiguous management, no clear lines of communication, and maintenance and operational issues.”

Tenants also occupy a difficult position in weighing into the City’s plans. 

“We’re an interested party,” said Scherpf, speaking for Arts at the Armory. “Our goal in this is to secure a long term lease and gain some stability. That can be challenging because we have the most expertise in this space—we’ve been able to try things out, experiment, and find what’s working. We’ve helped identify what the community needs. But in order to have a neutral process, we haven’t heard from the City as much as we’d like. There’s a lot of collective experience and knowledge in the building, between tenants, and the City has  not availed itself of it in the name of a more objective process … these consultants are based out of New York, so they don’t have a lot of context of the ecosystem here.”

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.

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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire

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