Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

BTMFBA: arts uses in Greater Boston/Somerville, Massachusetts

There is an article in the Boston Globe, "‘Tension is everywhere’: In Somerville, a tech cluster emerges with hope and worry: Around Boston, tech grows at the expense of artists and small businesses," about the displacement of arts uses in Somerville, a suburb of Boston, as tech uses especially biotechnology continue to expand.  Somerville is also complicated by a rise in demand due to improvements in transit service.  From the article:

When it came time to renew the Asylum’s lease on 42,000 square feet of warehouse space it rented in an envelope plant off Somerville Avenue, Hasselblad Torres wanted a long-term deal. He said he offered to pay roughly $900,000 a year — a roughly 50 percent hike — but the building’s new owner, Boston-based developer Rafi Properties, didn’t show “much enthusiasm” for the offer. Later, a Rafi spokeperson said, the landlord offered a two-year extension at the Asylum’s existing, lower, rent, but said the Asylum was “not able to provide a guarantor” and could not move forward in negotiations.

Either way, talks fizzled. Artisan’s Asylum found a new home in Allston. And in December, The Engine, an MIT-backed venture capital fund with far deeper pockets, moved in to its old space. ... 

It’s a question that has played out in neighborhood after neighborhood across Greater Boston in recent years as historic levels of investment have flooded the city’s tech scene, promising good jobs and more customers to small businesses but often pricing out some of the institutions that make a place thrive. 

From Fort Point to Jamaica Plain to once-forlorn pockets of Cambridge, enclaves of artists and low-cost creative endeavors have been transformed by soaring rents for both housing and commercial space. Now Somerville is in the throes of it. “Tension is everywhere,” said Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Somerville’s Union Square Main Streets, in an interview. “The excitement and the optimism and the concerns and the worry — it’s all at the same time. It exists in the same moment, and in the same breath.”

A letter to the editor ("Artists can’t expect perpetually cheap real estate") in response says, well if you want to maintain uses, buy the properties, don't expect it to be given to you.  He's right, stating:

Now is the time for artists to go to Holyoke, North Adams, Lawrence, and other places where real estate is more reasonable than hot Somerville. They could form co-ops, condo associations, or partnerships, and buy old mill spaces, old shopping centers, or even an old mall in Lanesborough, and divvy it up and use it for their needs.

If you want to control your future, you buy your space. Most other tenants understand this. Artists create things that inspire or challenge us or bring beauty into our lives. But to demand that private property owners be legally obligated to rent to them at a loss is not part of the deal.

but misses the point some, in that an average groups of artists and creatives usually lack the means to be able to raise such funds.  They need help to do so.

That's why I argue for the creation of arts-use focused community development corporations operating at the scale of a city or a county, to take on such projects, to buy, hold and operate arts facilities including housing, to maintain their uses in the face of property price appreciation and displacement.

In a more cryptic way, I refer to this as "Buy The M***** F****** Building Already."

-- "BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building," 2016
-- "BTMFBA: Baltimore and the Area 405 Studio," 2021
-- "When BTMFBA isn't enough: keeping civic assets public through cy pres review," 2016
-- "BMFBTA revisited: nonprofits and facilities planning and acquisition," 2016
-- "BTMFBA: artists and Los Angeles," 2017
-- "BTMFBA Chronicles: Seattle coffee shop raises money to buy its building," 2018
-- "Dateline Los Angeles: BTMFBA & Transformational Projects Action Planning & arts-related community development corporation as an implementation mechanism to own property," 2018
-- "Seattle preservation: Pike Place Market, Neptune Theater, and the Cinerama," 2021
-- "A wrinkle on BTMFBA: let the city/county own the cultural facility, while you operate it (San Francisco and the Fillmore Heritage Center)," 2021

The BTMFBA argument extends writings about how artists, arts disciplines, and organizations need to "make their own plans" to represent their own interests.  

The initial piece in 2009 didn't mention in a direct way the need to have community development corporations, although I'd written about such groups in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

-- "Arts, culture districts and revitalization," 2009

-- "The Howard and Lincoln Theatres: run them like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Playhouse Square Cleveland model," 2012

I updated the piece in 2018 to include that point.

-- "Revisiting stories: cultural planning and the need for arts-based community development corporations as real estate operators"

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At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Torpedo Factory, eyeroll.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Yeah. Cf

+ Bergamot Station in Santa Monica and Belgo Building in Montreal

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

And Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center in Hyattsville is quite cool too.

At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"Everything" is collusion with nasty developers. A couple years ago there was a bunch of coverage in the Post about the ongoing tussle between the city and the arts group and members running the Torpedo Factory.

I wrote about it:

It's reasonable for the city to determine if it's getting the most benefit from the city owned building at the foot of the waterfront.

2. I don't think I wrote about it, but there was a similar issue in Boston a few years ago.

The Boston Center for the Arts wanted to be more purposive, that instead of artists using studios super long term they wanted to change to more of a shorter term focus, and create an artist residency program.

That is an issue, "semi permanent spaces" versus shorter term spaces.

As I have aruged (and cited within the entry above), you need community cultural plans, with specific subplans for disciplines, including a facilities element.

Yes, artists need access to studios. But cities have competing goals and objectives and having somewhat static arts studios at the foremost location on your waterfront might not be the best use, considering tourism and other economic development objectives.

But the existing artists can be a strong advocacy group, and it's easier for them to get support, especially when they have the bogeyman of the nasty evil developers, capitalism, etc.

This is a big issue at Eastern Market, which is why I was paying attention to the TF issue, when I was on the board of Eastern Market, and briefly, part of a team writing a new plan for the market.

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Pyramid is a much smaller space that the Torpedo Factory, but it feels more active, more vibrant.

Maybe part of the problem at TF is the mix of arts uses, more studio and solitary, as opposed to Pyramid's members using various types of printing equipment.

Maybe they just need to mix it up more?

The Pyramid building also includes the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area visitor center, which is an illustration that maybe having the visitor center directly at the waterfront is a good thing (although maybe a negative in terms of serving as a staging point for tours in terms of logistic simplicity).

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

While I was very critical of the belief that Artisphere was supposed to be profitable, it had a better mix of activities too, including spaces for music and happenings.

It would be interesting to track down the business plan of Artisphere for its example of the mix of spaces and uses.

Refiguring the mix of how the arts are produced and presented at the Torpedo Factory is definitely in order.

2. It'd be worth doing a comparison of different comparable facilities in the area.

I don't know if the Warehouse Arts Center in old Lorton is still around (I never went to it), Pyramid, Artists and Makers in Rockville (merely studios), the faux studios of the Arts Walk part of the Monroe & Market development in Brookland, etc.

Eg my criticism of the Brookland thing is that without a city wide arts plan (there is one, but it's deficient) with facilities elements at the city-wide and "neighborhood" scale, they developed a space that was all of one type, not workable for different disciplines. (Although there is a black box space across the street, for some reason called the Edgewood Arts Center even though it's in Brookland.)

3. And even looking further afield at multi-disciplinary arts center.

In response to your first comment, the first place that went through my head was GoggleWorks in Reading, PA, which is quite cool. Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, Bluecoat Centre for the Creative Arts in Liverpool. Liverpool has a different organization oriented to film and digital, FACT Liverpool. There is the Podcast Garage in Boston. Of course, NYC has many examples, including BRIC in Brooklyn, Symphony Space, etc.

And I just learned that the Barbican Centre in London has a library. Damn, I would have checked it out. It has a film centre as a key arts element already.

Shockingly, I have found the Bountiful Davis Arts Center in Bountiful, Utah to be more of a mixed use arts center than what is often available in DC proper. It's gallery, plus music and other performances, plus teaching/classes. Don't think they have residencies.

4. And there are other incredible examples in Europe. Cablefactory in Helsinki and its music and digital initiatives, etc.

From a past blog entry:

The Helsinki (Finland) Library System has two especially innovative programs. Library 10, a special library focused on music and culture, started as a program located in the city's multi-functional CableFactory arts center, but has since been relocated to a different site. In addition to its book and media collection, the library provides space and equipment for the production and presentation of independently-produced work.

Meetingpoint is an experimental library without books, which provides technical assistance and guidance for digital communications and living in a digitally-connected society. Meetingpoint also develops digital communications platforms for organizations, with a focus on civic participation.

Both programs have extended hours, open as early as 8am and close as late as 10pm. Both programs are seen as models for helping to develop new ways of developing programs, organizing space, and serving patrons for the new Central Library.

5. Trans Europes Halles is an association of multidisciplinary arts centers across Europe.

At 6:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Maybe they have but I doubt it, Alexandria needs to do a broader cultural plan, along the lines I've written about. And then figure out what they want to offer and how to achieve it, including an evaluation of TF.

I think the DC cultural plan is very weak. This was my response.

This is the kind of arts plan I think Alexandria needs.

2. When I was interviewing for a job in Hyattsville a long time ago, I suggested that to center the arts district there, and note that the county did an arts district plan for that area in the late 1990s very early 2000s,

I suggested they try to get the UMD School of Art to move to the Rte. 1 corridor. That wasn't super realistic.

My other suggestion was to get the PGCCC to move their arts programs to the Rte. 1 corridor and that was more realistic.

3. Similarly, the Port Towns there in PGC have the heritage area, originally called Anacostia Trails now Maryland Milestones (which I think is so generic a name to be meaningless).

Of course, Alexandria has a heritage plan, but I wonder if like what I've suggested for DC, that DC should treat itself as a "heritage area" and plan accordingly, irrespective of being nationally designated by Congress, like how Baltimore's heritage area was first locally created, and only later was nationally designated, and treat the core of the city as a heritage area in terms of planning for culture, historic preservation and architecture, the waterfront/maritime history, and the arts.

At 8:06 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oops, the center in Lorton, formerly the Lorton Prison for DC, is called Workhouse Arts Center.

Like Artisphere, and the Signature Theater at the Shirlington Library, it has had financial issues, in part because Fairfax County had unrealistic expectations about revenue.

Another area arts center would be Glen Echo in Maryland, which is under the auspices of NPS.

And Strathmore in MoCo.

At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alexandria has a cultural and arts plan (2016). I haven't read it, but I'm familiar with some of the public art stuff.

TF has had *many* studies through the years. The problem is the "activists" can never advocate for anything other than the status quo. "Refiguring the mix of how the arts are produced and presented at the Torpedo Factory is definitely in order." This is what is being attempted. It's really a dead space in many way, many studios are never open, and many of the "resident" tenants live outside the city. It's an expensive place for Etsy artists to have their stuff on rents subsidized by the public. I am not in favor of closing it or significantly repurposing it, but it needs to change. Circling back to your original post, the noisy detractors just need to BTA (their own) MFBA, but the status quo suits them because they can always have the city be the bad guy.

At 10:30 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'm glad you commented because it made me think anew about this issue. Not just TF, but a metropolitan area's arts centers, comparing and contrasting. In my 2009 piece, "arts, culture districts and revitalization" I cite a report frim the Creative City Network of Canada on types of space. That kind of framework is how I think about culture and artistic disciplines planning at the city or county scale. It provides a framework for thinking about TF (and other facilities) in a more evaluative way.

Challenging the status quo is hard, especially because it's easier for the quo to rally support. And raise the boogeyman of nasty developers (hey, I am the first to say developers are self interested, but that has nothing to do with Alexandria's responsibility to evaluate TF).

It happened I was in there a few times in the months before I moved, and I was surprised at how dead it was.

Similarly, at Pyramid Atlantic a couple times in the same period, and it seemed so much more vibrant.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

You might not think this is relevant but it's an example of a non profit being evaluative, considering hard choices and making tough decisions about how to best use it's resources for superior outcomes.


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