Fifth Meeting of the Mayor’s Arts Task Force
Date: February 7th, 2019
Location: Multicultural Arts Center
Subject: Artist Studio and Live/Work Space, Affordability, Zoning
In attendance as members of the Arts Task Force were: Alanna Mallon, Chair; Liana Ascolese, Executive Assistant to the Task Force and Aide to Councillor Mallon; Christopher Hope, The Loop Lab; James Pierre, visual artist; Jason Weeks, Executive Director of the Arts Council; Jero Nesson, Founder of ArtSpace; Eryn Johnson, Executive Director of the Community Art Center; Geeta Pradhan, President and CEO of the Cambridge Community Foundation; Ben Simon, musician and Cambridge Arts Coalition; David De Celis, architect and Public Arts Commission; Peter DiMuro, Executive Director of the Dance Complex; Ellen Shakespear, Spaceus; Kristina Latino, Cornerscape; Olivia D’Ambrosio, Director of the Bridge Repertory Theater; Kelly Sherman, visual artist; Afiyah Harrigan, Mayor’s Office Liaison.
Councillor Mallon thanked everyone for coming and stated that tonight’s meeting would be about affordable studio space and housing for artists. A couple housekeeping announcements: The Loop Lab is here, and students from their workforce development meeting will be taping and recording the work of the Task Force. She also thanked member Olivia D’Ambrosio for hosting at the Multicultural Arts Center and thanked her for donating tickets to a performance of “Who is Eartha Mae?” directly after the task force meeting.
Councillor Mallon welcomed Jeff Roberts from the Community Development Department, who is the Zoning and Development Director.
Councillor Mallon reminded the group of the discussion last month and advised that a Policy Order that came out of last month’s discussion asking for an inventory of all arts organizations as well as the foundations that support them financially passed at the Council and will help promote community and access among local artists, as well as give us good data to use about support needed going forward. She will keep the Task Force posted.
Councillor Mallon stated that there will be two presentations tonight. Mr. Roberts from CDD will be giving us a “Zoning 101” presentation, regarding how zoning is related to arts, a possible update to the Ordinance, and strategies to include arts in our zoning to make sure artists exist and are represented. Mr. Roberts will speak about how zoning is a tool to incentivize but not guarantee arts-related uses, as well as about the possibility to amend the table of uses, ease permitting, and speak about the potential for an Arts Overlay District in Central Square. Mr. Roberts will walk us through the CDD response to Councillor Mallon’s policy order asking for this zoning overlay.
Task Force member, Jero Nesson who founded ArtSpace will also be presenting about creating affordable artist space and cooperatives and give us tools on how artists can come together to create spaces if the City or an arts-related foundation was gifted land or space.
Councillor Mallon also described a report by the City of Portland, OR. She said that it was a comprehensive overview of actions that could be taken to increase arts spaces. Part of the reason for the Task Force was around the closing of the EMF building, where 200 musicians were displaced. Musicians are examples of artists that need specific space. They cannot work from home and need a place where they’re renting a space to perform a craft. If an artist is living in an unaffordable City as far as housing, and unaffordable as well as artist space, it’s a “double whammy”, and can cause artist displacement. She cited that task force member Ms. Olivia D’Ambrosio traveled from Worcester every day to practice her art and this is not sustainable. We need to be in a much stronger space.
Councillor Mallon introduced Mr. Roberts.
Mr. Roberts stated that he had been with the City for 15 years working on zoning, which he described as both an art and a science. He stated that it’s about being able to think creatively about the City’s plans and how they can integrate into a document that serves as a regulatory path for the future. Zoning is very technical, and everyone is at different levels. He will try to talk about the underlying principles and how it works, how it is a foundational tool, and the planning challenges the City deals with and how zoning can help.
Mr. Roberts stated that he wants to hear from the people around the table, because he often relies on Jason and Lillian (from the Arts Council) when he needs help or advice on the arts but doesn’t always get the opportunity to speak directly with the arts community. Mr. Roberts stated that he brought some zoning maps, because zoning is very geographic and based on an understanding of the City and how we break it down into different parts. He stated that there are different requirements in each of our districts, and the document gives a sense of how we chart patterns of development in the City.
Mr. Roberts explained that zoning regulates land use, and it’s the way in which we regulate what people are allowed to do with their land, whether it’s homes, offices, junkyards, retail stores, or arts studios. These uses are embedded into the Zoning Ordinance, which breaks the City apart into districts and zones. He stated that in each one there’s a set of regulations applied uniformly such as: what kind of use, how big, how tall, the floor area, and the intensity of uses which varies from different districts, which he defined as density. He also stated that zoning gives a basic sense of what the scale and use of a project can be, and also imposes development standards such as setback, open space, parking, bicycle parking, sustainability, and inclusionary zoning provisions. The important thing about zoning is that it doesn’t regulate people, who owns a property, who space is leased to, commerce, type of business activities, and doesn’t infringe on other laws or codes.
Mr. Roberts stated that you can use zoning to set up a framework, but property owners are the ones who choose what they want to do. A good question to ask is “are your zoning incentives encouraging property owners to make the choices that you want?”
Mr. Roberts stated that in the context of arts uses, CDD prepared a report. He educated the group about zoning impediments, such as things that may intentionally or unintentionally create roadblocks for all kinds of uses that we’re interested in promoting. He stated the that he was interested in hearing more about arts-related uses and asked the group to be more specific about what they were talking about. He asked if the group wanted these uses to be broadly or narrowly defined. He stated that Somerville created a designation of arts-related uses that include lots of different things like graphic design and are almost tech-based. He asked the group what they needed in Cambridge.
He explained that there are many impediments to zoning. When you look at our Zoning Ordinance, it’s fairly permissive when it comes to artist studios, and it’s one of the few nonresidential uses that can be found in some residential districts. The Ordinance is permissive of live/work space, and you can have a customary home occupation as long as you’re meeting the requirements of home occupation, you can establish one easily.
Mr. Roberts stated that sometimes there are unintended consequences of zoning, and he would like feedback on this. He asked the group if anyone has tried to do something where Inspectional Services put up a roadblock, or if they had zoning issues they had run into. He restated that unintended consequences are common, and that you have to be careful creating new definitions or categories of use, because once you define something you might be overregulating it. If things are working fairly well and you’re not careful, you might get into trouble creating new things.
Mr. Roberts spoke about zoning incentives in relation to the CDD memo. He explained that there was a little ju-jitsu to it because all zoning does is regulate space, and incentives are the negative space, creating requirements that don’t apply. Only doing this doesn’t work, because if economic incentives aren’t there, property owners still won’t do what you want, and will lean toward the more economically advantageous option. He gave an example of the limitations on floor area (FAR) on a particular lot – by exempting certain uses such as retail or affordable housing, it can provide an economic incentive to say that this space “doesn’t count”, and a property owner can have more floor area for other things that generate more value.
Mr. Roberts stated that in Central Square, the City has a zoning overlay which is two-tiered. There’s base zoning, which says what you can do “as of right”, or without special permission, such as a height limit of 55 feet. He explained that a special permit can raise the height limit to 80 feet, and in exchange for that, the planning board reviews different criteria to see if a developer meets it. These criteria are important and what they are will influence what we want in exchange for extra height or other development bonuses. The review process allows a chance for residents to weigh in, and stakeholders can say what they want or what they are concerned about.
Councillor Mallon asked if we could revisit the two-tiered process, and if there was a way to revisit the way it’s currently worded to explicitly value arts and culture to tell developers that we’re trying to move that forward and make it stronger in the language. She stated that the concern right now is that Central Square is changing, and it may change in a negative way unless we are intentional. She wondered if there’s a way to express this vision or a tool that we can use.
Mr. Roberts responded absolutely. He stated that Central Square is already an area of special planning concern, which means that at some point in the past we have identified this area as special, and we are going to establish real goals and objectives. The two-tiered approach is a mechanism resulting from a process that took place in 1987 that was put into place. The values of historic preservation, active uses, and pedestrian friendliness all got incorporated into the Zoning Ordinance. There are specific provisions, but if you want to build to a full potential, you have to come to the Planning Board and demonstrate that you meet the aforementioned goals. There was another planning study completed in 2013, which was both interesting and contentious. The recommendations were controversial at the time and still are today. The zoning emerged from the Central Square Business Association members to try and amend some zoning, and was adopted in 2017, but it wasn’t comprehensive in its goals and objectives. Identifying arts and culture as a key driving force in Central was part of the process, and it’s not unreasonable to ask how this can be built into the Central Square overlay.
Councillor Mallon said that this would give the Planning Board more grounds to really address the uses we want.
Mr. Weeks asked if incentives have teeth or if they are just desires.
Mr. Roberts answered that you have to be creative with zoning, and that incentives actually need to be incentives. On the other hand, you can be too heavy handed and discourage redevelopment entirely. He stated that he wanted to remind himself to say this because in Cambridge it’s the primary thing. He explained that one of the principles of zoning is the idea of “nonconformity.” This means that when a building was put in place, it may have been within the rules at the time and can continue to be maintained in perpetuity even if zoning changes at some point in the future. Zoning only kicks in when there’s a significant change to the use of a building, or something in rebuilt, and property owners always have a choice to maintain what they have as existing. This is important because our Ordinance was adopted in 1924 and is close to 100 years old. Mr. Roberts explained that in 1924, most of the land in Cambridge was already developed, and aside from bits and pieces, everything was done even though a lot had been changed and redeveloped. Many of the buildings and uses in Cambridge are still nonconforming, because there was no zoning when they were built, so that’s a key issue with zoning in Cambridge: you’re never starting from scratch. Mr. Roberts asked everyone to think about what the current use of something is and if zoning is encouraging or discouraging change. He stated that economic forces are always playing into these complications as well, and you can always try to put incentives in place, but they don’t always work the way we want.
Mr. Weeks asked if we had an arts-aware or arts-friendly Planning Board.
Mr. Roberts said it was hard to say, but we had a thoughtful Planning Board that takes their role very seriously. He explained that part of their role is to understand the Ordinance. If a guideline says arts need to be considered they will, the Ordinance may just need to be specific and clear, and the Planning Board will take that seriously.
Mr. Weeks replied that if the work of this committee can better inform the Planning Board that would be great.
Mr. Roberts said that it depended on what level you’re talking about. Studio spaces or spaces where you’re making a building into a usable arts space aren’t the types of projects that come to the Planning Board. Their job is to read zoning petitions and get involved when there is a significant redevelopment. He explained that the Planning Board had been positive about the arts center at Lesley and were talking about the space last Tuesday and how open and engaging it is. He explained that they are most interested in arts-related and institutional uses and how they engage with the general public. They are very supportive of arts to the extent that they’ve been reviewing arts-related proposals.
Councillor Mallon stated that the Planning Board seemed to be agnostic in one direction or another. If they’re looking at zoning incentives, something needs to be included in the Ordinance to encourage them to ensure arts related uses are involved in the project.
Ms. Johnson asked how zoning is influenced by diversity, equity, inclusion, and related overarching goals. She asked what the values are. She also asked Mr. Roberts to talk about how the arts overlay could support us in our diversity goals, or how it could work against that. She stated that it’s common knowledge that gentrification and arts are mixed, and even if it’s unintentional there could be possible pitfalls with the arts overlay.
Mr. Roberts replied that stepping way back, zoning has a very troubled history when it comes to inclusion, because the nature of zoning is dividing and regulating, which intentionally or unintentionally – and there are persuasive arguments for intentionally – can promote inequity. For example, zoning that restricts areas to single family homes on one acre lots is a recent example of restrictive zoning resulting in outcomes that are inequitable. In Cambridge, we try to do zoning in a way that’s positive, but you always have to be mindful that when you’re restricting, you’re going to constrain a resource in a City and let the economy do the rest, which often lets the wealthy and those with access have more access to scarce resources.
Mr. Roberts stated that zoning doesn’t make more land – we have the land that we have and the building stock that we have. If there’s growth, you can see how growth is driven by strong economic forces, but if you don’t have any growth than the space that’s available becomes even more precious and in-demand that results in rising prices and more difficulty of access. This is the big picture of how zoning affects inclusion. He stated that Cambridge has policies like inclusionary zoning, which is something more communities have been embracing, but it’s a little bit of a specialized use of zoning with questions about how and where it is appropriate for Cities to use this type of regulatory power to say you can do X, but the City has to receive Y benefit. He stated this is a touchy area but something we’re always thinking about and working on. We need to be careful that we get the result that we want and need to do things in a way that’s legal.
Mr. Roberts made a final point about the arts overlay, which is that he is personally averse to using the word overlay. Overlay means that you are modifying your base zoning but talking about an “overlay” only is too abstract. You should be talking about what you want to do, whether it’s being more restrictive or more permissive, or offering incentives. When you figure out what you want to see, you can figure out if they are economically and legally feasible and ask what the right zoning tool is to try to accomplish that. Sometimes an overlay isn’t the best approach.
Ms. Johnson asked if there was arts or equity-oriented zoning in other cities.
Mr. Roberts replied that in the memo related to arts, CDD focused on Massachusetts because different states have different zoning laws. Lowell has an artist overlay district and it was hard to figure out how theirs was more permissive than Cambridge’s, because it actually says that some projects require a special permit whereas in Cambridge we don’t. One of the benefits of Lowell is that they created an arts overlay to produce more artsrelated housing, which may not have as much to do with zoning as it does the City’s values. Lowell invested in the community and people were attracted to making this investment as well, and they can partner with the city to do that. Somerville was the other example used because of their zoning in Union Square, which is basically the equivalent of Kendall in that it’s a major redevelopment. Somerville incorporated a 5% allocation of overall development to the arts as part of their zoning master plan. They grabbed different categories of artsrelated use and said that this board set of uses all qualifies.
Mr. Weeks as if this kicks in for mixed use redevelopment.
Mr. Roberts replied yes, this plan is a large-scale master redevelopment.
Mr. De Celis highlighted the examples from Portland and Seattle in that they have implications for people up and down the economic scale. We want to expand the definition of the arts and be more inclusive to make sure that they stay with us. He wanted to unpack the fact that zoning doesn’t regulate commerce because he thought it did. He stated that not everyone has the budget for a 2 million square foot development, and that substantial alteration triggers can stop a lot of small nonprofits from developing into galleries. Second, incentives can only do so much. Mr. De Celis agreed with this statement but the readings that were provided tonight really thought outside the box and beyond traditional textbook zoning. We also need to not underestimate the altruism and philanthropy in Cambridge, and be open to things such as certifying buildings, people, and places as create spaces, which is a really great example of being expansive and blurring boundaries.
Mr. DiMuro stated that he was thinking about what an overlay is, like fondant on a cake. He asked if this is more of a lens that we’re getting people to see through. He stated that it’s not just about arts but artists who need to be included in the conversation. Zoning is one thing, licensing and permitting is another. He gave the example of the Dance Complex paying $1 for their entertainment license because they’re an “exhibition hall” not a “theater” because of some rule in 1928. This is an example of how one thing like the historical nature of a building affects another, and how if the City isn’t handholding and making the connections, they aren’t being made.
Mr. Roberts stated that licensing is a separate issue because of different laws and regulations, and that we operate in a constellation of laws and systems, and what Mr. DiMuro said was important, that we can’t just look at one thing, we need to look at how everything works together from our end. From a property owner’s perspective, it’s about how it all comes together on a particular site. Mr. Roberts stated that he is interested to see if there have been zoning issues in relation to licensing because in order to get licensed, you need to establish that your use is allowed by zoning.
Mr. DiMuro stated that the Dance Complex is fine as they are now, but they want to be more of an artist-citizen organization, so things may grow and change. Artists shouldn’t be behind closed doors and need to find ways to work together.
Mr. Roberts stated that this is a key issue more presently and is what happens when you have uses and activities in buildings that evolve to incorporate different types of functions and activities. Economic development and retailers are concerned about this too, because we need to look at the table of uses, which lays out how we categorize all these different uses. There are things we need to make clear and resolve issues such as retailers that want to hold classes – are they a school or a retailer? He stated that every situation is unique, but zoning is a uniform thing that you have to apply, and we try to work where we can to help people.
Ms. Pradhan stated that we need to lead with vision and see what it will take to make that vision possible. She asked what zoning changes we would need to make. She stated that we have one cultural district and need to make sure everyone is behind it, such as the Planning Board, Council, City administration, and residents. She is worried that we get caught up in technicalities like zoning and permitting, and we need to remind ourselves that vision is front and center. When we look at incentives, it’s a small portion of big development that will go towards our vision, and we need to make it bigger and more prominent.
Mr. Roberts stated that he couldn’t agree more, and that we need to ask what outcome we want, what we’re trying to achieve, and what problem we’re trying to solve. We need to answer this question before we know if zoning will be a tool to use.
Mr. Monestime stated that he wanted to piggyback and that it sounds like there’s something missing from the Central Square zoning, such as an art piece component. He asked whether there were other priorities and pointed to what Somerville was trying to include. He asked if we could modify some of the current zoning to include arts.
Mr. Roberts stated that there is a lot to modify in the original Central Square overlay. He stated that the petition was a community-led initiative focused mostly on housing and promoting more housing growth to add activity and to the number of people in the square. Arts and culture are not included in the petition but could’ve been and could still be.
Councillor Mallon stated that housing brings people into the Square, but we need to ask who the people are. In thinking about Mass and Main, a massive number of units are market rate – they are not artists or people who can afford to live there. We need to have intention around these units and see them through a diversity and equity lens, which should be explored here as this conversation moves forward.
Ms. Sherman stated that she found the Somerville descriptions are confusing, and if there was a need for all of them. She asked if they did something that’s different than what’s already allowed.
Mr. Roberts replied that as a far as retail, this is a project we are thinking about. The question is how we identify what counts as a different use, and this is a delicate balance, because it can be really specific and individual line items can add up to hundreds of uses. Other communities are broader, and a whole range of different uses or activities can fit all into one category. He stated that Cambridge is in a funny place because our use table is dated and originates from 1961 and has only changed a little bit. If you define things more narrowly it means that you have to make more decisions when you’re trying to regulate what’s allowed and what’s not, or what’s incentivized and what’s not. No matter how you classify, you’ll always have something that you’re not sure where it goes.
Ms. Sherman asked how we can bridge uses that fall on a line.
Mr. Roberts replied that what she’s asking is why Somerville created so many things under their “arts and creative enterprise” category. He advised of the want to be broad because you don’t know what kind of activity is in a certain space, and you need to leave room to be inclusive of things you haven’t thought of before. The upside is that a creative use is still allowed. The unintended consequence is having a use you don’t like. He stated that you do need to have some specificity in advance based on land use and can’t just make arbitrary judgements uses you like or don’t.
Councillor Mallon thanked Mr. Roberts for his presentation and for the robust conversation about zoning, which can be difficult to understand.
Councillor Mallon stated that in the Lowell example, one thing that jumped out was that maybe it was just the municipality saying that arts and culture is a focus and a value which was powerful. It’s something that we as a City can do in a more formalized way in talking about leading with vision. She stated that in terms of Central Square, it is an area of special planning concern, and it’s a place to be bold and do innovative things. She suggested that we write our vision into the overlay around arts and culture so that developers, the Planning Board, and planners know what we want to see in Central Square.
Councillor Mallon stated that Mr. Nesson will now be giving a presentation about his long history of creating cooperative arts spaces in repurposed buildings in Massachusetts.
(Note: the slides were photos shown on a slide projector, not a powerpoint presentation and are unable to be included in this report)
Mr. Nesson began his presentation by stating that studio space is the number one issue facing visual artists in almost every urban area, and it is a major issue for performing artists as well. He stated that providing affordable studio and live/work space is an economic issue, and that it helps to have a friendly zoning and building code, but nothing can happen without developers doing something significant. He stated that the slides he’s showing reflect several projects where the developers were the artists themselves or an arts or nonprofit organization. There were no fees or public funding, and projects were financed through private banks because the projects were looked at as conventional real estate deals that made sense. He stated that all projects were fully occupied and committed before a project was ever undertaken and that in the 20-30 years that they have existed, there has never been a vacancy.
Mr. Nesson asked how we can take this vision and bring it to Cambridge. We cannot possibly buy buildings, and for-profit developers do not provide these spaces. He stated that the City of Cambridge could rehab old buildings on City-owned property where there are no land costs. He stated that the process is cookie-cutter, but individual stories are fascinating
Mr. Nesson asked if everyone was familiar with the Fort Point neighborhood, where there are millions of square feet of mill space. This particular building was originally a wool storage area, and that he was working with the Fort Point board to maintain a community of 370 artists after they were repeatedly displaced from other areas. Unfortunately, all of the buildings in Fort Point were owned by Boston Wharf Company, and even years of negotiations left them unwilling to sell. This one particular building was not owned by them, and a notice was put out to artists of Fort Point after an architectural and financial analysis showed that the building was viable for live/work space. Each artist put down $500 for a nonrefundable deposit, and even though the building was risky, it was marketable. The project grew into a limited equity artist live/work co-op where if you wanted to resell your unit, you’re limited to the consumer price index of 1-2% per year and could only sell to
Mr. Nesson described the building as open mill space, decent windows, and somewhat functioning steam heating, sprinklers, and elevators.
Mr. Nesson stated that artist participants met every week to make decisions about the project and went to various banks in the Boston area before finding a bank that would finance the project. He described their special permit process and that they needed one for residential use in an industrial area. They lost their initial appeal but won again a short time later. The math worked out to $20 per square foot and $5 per square foot for equity and worked out to a total rent of $5 per square foot per year. He stated that the artists who took part in the project were courageous and risk takers but pulled it off. He stated that the renovation of the space was bare bones and minimal, with minimal outlets and kitchen amenities. The average studio was large, however, at 1,500 square feet.
Mr. Nesson showed slides of Brickbottom Gallery, which was an old A&P warehouse on McGrath Highway in Somerville. It was abandoned and seemed to work from a financial and architectural standpoint. Within a few weeks, 100 artists put down a $500 deposit and became the developers. He stated that the Mayor of Somerville was fully supportive and facilitated the zoning change, which allowed residential use in an industrial area. The same bank the financed Fort Point financed this project as well, and the idea was to create an artist cooperative. In this project the top floor was sold as market rate condos and the proceeds were used to finance the co-op.
Mr. Nesson showed a photo of an “extravagant studio of a large-scale sculptor.” He stated that the condition of the studio was bare bones: a cheap, simple kitchen with unfinished walls. Artists could leave it that way or spend money over time. The rent was $45-$50 per square foot. He stated that the architect peeled back the roof of half of a one-story connector to provide outdoor space.
Mr. Nesson showed a surplus school in Newton that a group of artists proposed to develop as artist live/work space in a residential neighborhood. They were competing with market developers and the neighbors supported their proposal.
Mr. Nesson showed the group a two-story studio in the space. A husband and wife artist team had spaces on two separate levels. He also showed the group a picture of an old gym and explained that the artist who occupied that space did all the interior construction by herself.
Mr. Nesson described Harry the Greek’s building in the South End at the corner of Washington & East Berkley, a building owned by Boston Redevelopment. The artists were competing for the building against the Harry the Greek store owner who was very politically connected. The BRA designated both Harry and the artists as developers and reached an agreement in which the artists got the top two floors, a storefront on the first floor, and an arts co-op existed within the condominium.
Mr. Nesson also described spaces that were for studios only, such as the Lawrence School in Wellesley. Artists were contacted by the abutters when the building became surplus because they didn’t want the use to be a community college. The building ended up providing studio space for 35-40 artists, and very little building was involved because the building was so usable as-is. He explained that the artists had a 10-year lease until the town took the building back. He stated that the artists wanted to stay together but Newton and Wellesley were unaffordable but ended up finding a space in Framingham.
Mr. Nesson showed pictures of the Old Concord High School, where a group of artists petitioned the town to occupy on an interim basis, but subsequently worked out a long-term arrangement. There were about 45 artists in this space and they had small studios, large teaching facilities, a clay area, a large theater, and a dance studio. He explained that after some years, Carlisle asked if they wanted an additional surplus school, which they converted to studio space as well.
Mr. Nesson described the Artspace in Maynard, which was made up of an old middle school of 3 interconnected buildings. The school moved to a new facility and artists took over the next day. The space was 55,000 square feet and not as large as Brickbottom or the space at Fort Point. There was a large gallery downstairs.
Mr. Nesson showed one last photo of an installation in the 1980s reflecting all of the artist buildings and spaces in Boston that no longer housed artists. He explained that these spaces could be applicable in Cambridge, because we have publicly owned spaces and parcels with large and small spaces, spaces over publicly owned garages, or spaces on vacant lots.
Ms. Sherman stated that she was amazed at Mr. Nesson’s involvement with these projects, and that they stand out because they’re private studio spaces not for public engagement or studios, except for select classrooms.
Mr. Nesson replied that the key to the project is keeping it simple and leaving it to just artist studio space. Many projects want to be all things to all people, and they get complicated and slow down. He stated that this is an important rule to live by.
Ms. Sherman asked if there was pushback from cities who came to the artists arguing that there wasn’t a community engagement component of these projects. She expressed her surprise that cities were ok with private spaces.
Mr. Nesson replied that in most places, the artists were the best choice for development. In Wellesley, neighbors didn’t want a community college next to them. In Carlisle, the School Committee didn’t want strangers and traffic. Both cities saw artists as a low density and low impact use.
Ms. Latino asked which of these projects was the most recent.
Mr. Nesson replied that the last project completed was in 2001.
Ms. Latino asked if there were others in the area since then.
Mr. Nesson replied no, but referenced Lowell, and said that Western Avenue studios had a lot of support from the City to convert mill space to artist use. Large open mill space was converted to semi-private space. He explained that the walls only go up 8 feet, so sound is an issue. The developer started marketing live/work space in these projects.
Ms. Latino stated that she grew up in Worcester and thought the old courthouse was being developed into live/work space.
Mr. Nesson replied that every building owner in Worcester had inflated their value during that time, and projects there didn’t seem to work back then.
Ms. Johnson asked what strategies Mr. Nesson would recommend to account for the race and cultural diversity of artists who were using these spaces.
Mr. Nesson replied that there were very few minority participants in these projects, and that when these projects were being done, most commitments were for local artists. He explained that there was an attempted project in Mission Hill and Roxbury on City-owned land, which would have been a diverse project, but it wasn’t feasible architecturally.
Ms. Pradhan stated that she was curious that most of the projects were financed as regular real estate deals, but the equity was minimal. She asked where the equity came from.
Mr. Nesson replied through a bank loan.
Mr. De Celis asked if there was a partnership through the abandoned buildings that were public.
Ms. Pradhan stated that in her experience, banks were pretty tough on making sure that deals were financially solid, and that artist incomes are not predictable. She stated that she was impressed that these deals were able to be financed and asked if there were particular banks that were friendly, because conventional financing is tough.
Mr. Nesson stated that 60% of the artists at Brickbottom were low-income and that some needed co-signers for their spaces, or to bring in tax returns to see how much space they could afford. He stated that it’s easier to organize artists around a real project and not an idea, and that finding artists to fill these spaces was easy.
Ms. Sherman asked if there was a template or key ingredients to make this work well. She highlighted the bare bones and simple design, the properties that were gifted to artists from municipalities, hiring architects who were understanding and could work with groups, and finding friendly banks. She asked about Mr. Nesson’s role in connecting these dots.
Mr. Nesson replied that the artists were the developers and that he focused on zoning and finance. He clarified that others oversaw the construction.
Ms. Sherman stated that she was trying to recreate this effort and asked what it really took as far as leadership and organization.
Mr. Nesson replied that it takes moving forward even when things don’t go the way they were planned when opportunities come up.
Mr. Weeks stated that he was interested in the requirement of only being able to sell to artists and used the example of 75 Richdale. He asked how to control for that.
Ms. Pradhan responded with a deed restriction, like in affordable housing.
Mr. Nesson responded that if you’re involved with buying City-owned property, the City ensures that it’s restricted.
Mr. DiMuro commented that most artist lofts are for visual artists, but he was thinking of performing artists. He stated that in Philadelphia there was an old garage they wanted to make into a European hostel-type space, where dance companies could come visit and they wouldn’t have to pay high prices for hotels. He explained there were other kinds of models where space is low maintenance but accessible, and that local artists could stay long-term, but visiting artists could access it.
Councillor Mallon asked Mr. Nesson if he was in charge of working with municipalities to coordinate spot-zoning through regulatory requirements.
Mr. Nesson replied that he was involved with working with the Mayor to change zoning from industrial to residential as part of a special permit, so that would be spot zoning.
Mr. Roberts said that in 2001 the Citywide rezoning took into account the conversion of nonresidential buildings into residential and takes all variances and put them into a Planning Board Special Permit to make it simpler. Those cases can be controversial. He gave examples like conversions of church buildings in neighborhoods and stated that some neighbors are nervous about bringing in new residents.
Mr. Nesson stated that Boston didn’t mind changing zoning, but it didn’t want to restrict it to residences. He stated that at Fort Point they were opposed to a blanket allowance of residential use because artists that were living and working would be displaced by condos.
Councillor Mallon asked if the residences were owned.
Mr. Nesson responded that live/work space was owned whereas studio space was rented.
Councillor Mallon stated that she was thinking of the School Department building on Thorndike Street because it’s about to be empty. The Archdiocese is interested in renting the space but not selling because they need the revenue. She stated that the building is ancient but a good spot and wanted to make sure that we could talk about a rental situation.
Mr. Weeks stated that he also wondered about the former Graham and Parks school and the Longfellow School across from the annex, because they are perfectly positioned to do the type of thing that Jero is saying.
Mr. Nesson responded that he is interested in new construction because it’s just as hard to do a big project as it is a small one, so the struggle should be for something significant, and that owning means you’re there forever.
Councillor Mallon thanked everyone for their time tonight and adjourned the meeting at 7:27pm.