Artists get the shaft

By TED SIEFER  |  February 2, 2009

In pressing their case to the BRA that Archon should not end their leases until a concrete proposal, in line with the 100 Acres plan, for the use of the buildings was established, Bernstein and other artists could point to the vacant hulk on Melcher Street as a cautionary tale. In November of 2007, around 90 artists, small businesses, and a gallery were not given the chance to renew their expiring leases (or were kicked out, depending on your perspective) in a row of buildings from 49 to 63 Melcher Street. Since then, the buildings have remained boarded up, and last month the BRA gave the green light to combine the three buildings into one office monolith, with construction not to begin until late this year. For artists, it was a double hit: dozens were forced to leave the district, and a historic building in the heart of the neighborhood that had hosted a wide diversity of artists, craftsmen, and small businesses would become the antithesis of "mixed-use."

In years past, the BRA had acted as an intermediary between artist tenants and building owners, and FPAC spent the better part of the past year urging the BRA to get involved in negotiations with Archon for the latest group of buildings with expiring leases. "We got stonewalled," recalls Bernstein. Starting in late summer of 2008, the artists and their supporters deluged the mayor with letters warning of their pending eviction and the erosion of Fort Point's artist community. Finally in October, the mayor agreed to meet with the artists. Bernstein says Menino was taken aback by maps FPAC had put together, showing how the number of artist-occupied buildings had over the years gone from more than 20 to a mere handful today. "He said he was going to help," says Bernstein. "And he went to bat for us."

Sure enough, several weeks later, in early December, the BRA came up with a plan (pay attention — it's tricky): all of the artists in the three Archon-owned buildings would have the option of relocating to studios at the rear of 319 A Street, a narrow five-story structure. Once the A Street studios were ready — they were to be funded by developers (although not by Archon, which was only furnishing the building) to the tune of $680,000 — the artists could live there for two years. Then, Archon would essentially get to demolish the building and in its place build a residential tower. (Yes, they'd wait until nearly three-quarters of a million dollars had been spent fixing up the place, and then tear it down.) In exchange for being allowed to build a 20-plus-story building — well in excess of zoning guidelines, mind you — Archon would convey a vacated premises on Summer Street to the city for a permanent artist building, something that can not happen until the years-long process of community approval, permitting, and construction is complete. Voila!

This plan was put together just days before the BRA board voted on December 4 to approve two massive office projects in Fort Point — the one on Melcher and another on Summer Street. The city's press release spun the decision to twice uproot the artists as "an effort to keep artists in the district."

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