Artists get the shaft

By TED SIEFER  |  February 2, 2009

Most of the artists eligible for relocation — at least 42 out of 77 — voted with their feet, opting to leave the neighborhood rather than take their chances on what seemed like an impractical plan. "It seemed like a confused scramble, which apparently is what it turned out to be," says Ken Pierce, a dancer who practiced and taught classes for 15 years in the front section of 319 A Street. He took over the studio from another noted dancer in Fort Point, Glenda Medeiros, and had spent years refinishing the studio's floors and installing mirrors and bars. "Over the years, people had sort of found spaces that worked well for them and their work. You can't just move them all out, shake them up, and slot them into generic spaces."

Cheryl Forte, an FPAC board member and a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, is also vexed by the logic of the BRA's plan. "That that amount of money will not go for the creation of permanent artist space — it doesn't seem to be very thoughtful planning," she says. "We still think the best plan is allowing the artists to stay in their existing spaces."

If the artists were already dubious about the BRA's relocation plan, the letters tenants received from their landlord Archon's attorneys shortly after it was announced in early December really freaked them out. The letters warned that the company "makes no representation" that its negotiations with the BRA over the plan will be successful or that it would offer any extension beyond the end of this February. (The city's relocation agreement calls for leases to be extended indefinitely until the new studios at 319 A Street are ready.) A license agreement sent to some artists was even more alarming, requiring them to purchase $1 million worth of insurance.

Shen, of the BRA, says that the letters shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the artists will be out on the street at the end of next month, but at the same time he underscores the urgency of getting the artists out of buildings for which Archon has no immediate plans. "People really don't have other options in the building," says Shen. "The fire marshal wants it vacated as soon as possible."

Is that a smoke screen? In citing fire safety, Shen echoes claims made by Archon: that there is no way of making necessary modifications as long as there is one soul in the building. Tenants refute this, saying fire alarms were installed after a protracted fight between inspectors and Archon, during which a fireman had to be stationed outside the building for several months, until the spring of 2008, presumably to alert the department in the event of a fire. There is no record of 337 Summer Street currently being in violation of the fire code, according to files kept by the Inspectional Services Department (ISD). Neither the Boston Fire Department nor ISD responded to repeated queries about the building.

Despite the confusion and concern raised by the BRA's plan and Archon's letters, Shen insists work should be getting underway any day now on the temporary studios, saying, "We think we're going to immediately jump-start construction work."

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