Transcript – Episode 81

Narrator:  This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council.  We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Jennifer Mecca:  Part of what we’re learning now as an organization is how to kind of take our narrative and make it to clear to people what the value of the arts are in the community.  I know a lot of times when we’re looking at grant funding, it’s what are we doing not just from a cultural standpoint but what is the real economic development kind of component to the arts community.

Anita Walker:  Hi, I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud”.  Our guest today is Jennifer Mecca.  She is President of Fort Point Arts Community.  Welcome to our program.

Jennifer Mecca:  Thank you very much.  It’s really great to be here today.

Anita Walker:  We have been watching Fort Point for well over a decade now, and the evolution of this place as a community of artists has been absolutely fascinating to watch.  Tell us a little bit of the history and trajectory of how we’ve gotten to where we are today.

Jennifer Mecca:  Sure.  Well, Fort Point– I think the first artists, folklore says, came to Fort Point in the late ’70s, early ’80s, looking for large loft space, and the community grew to, we believe, about 800 artists in the neighborhood in the ’80s, ’90s, which were the peak of the population there, and it was really helped by the City of Boston, who had worked with the artists to help negotiate contracts with Boston Wharf properties.  So we think there was probably over 200 thousand square feet that was occupied by artists down there at that time, and the city helped negotiate a lease that let the arts community thrive.  So we worked with the property owners, the large property owner, Boston Wharf at the time.

Anita Walker:  Just pause there and give us the context.  Because today, when you start to go in that direction, it looks very, very different.  What was it like in the area?

Jennifer Mecca:  The only people on the streets were artists <laughs> primarily, and some of the smaller businesses that were down there.  It was vacant loft buildings that people kind of would take over one floor of the building and be the leaseholder, who would then sublet it to other artists.  So it was sort of an organic situation.  So you’d have a floor that might have three or four artists, or 13 or 14 artists on it, and you’d have a range of different-sized studios.  There were a lot of different disciplines out there.  So watching the trajectory over time, at that point in the ’80s, ’90s, occasionally a building would get developed and people would be displaced and be relocated and absorbed into other properties in the neighborhood.  So over time, I think there were 19 buildings originally that had people in, and by the time I arrived in Fort Point, it was probably more like 13 or 14 buildings, and that was in about 2004, when I first got a studio space down there.  And as things happened, in about 2006, that’s when Boston Wharf divested its holdings down there and sold it off to two large property owners– one, a local company, Berkeley Investments; and the other a group from Texas, Arcon Development– and that’s when the major kind of diaspora happened of the arts community.  So very rapidly we were left with about– the main three buildings that are actually artist-owned, Midway Studios, 300 Summer, and 249 A Street.  So–

Anita Walker:  And the rest?

Jennifer Mecca:  Gone.  People just moved out.  I mean, there were some people that moved to Lowell, looking for space up there.  People moved to Somerville just to kind of– into residential areas as opposed to an artist community, although there’s obviously grownup [ph?] space there, and also people moving down to Providence, wherever they could find similar, comparable rent rate and open space.  So it’s been a very big change that’s happened in the last few years– I mean, going from what was a community of six or eight hundred people down to probably about three hundred artists in the neighborhood right now.  It’s been a huge shift, and I think what’s been tough for us is that the community was in a reactionary mode.  “Save Our Studios” was kind of the mantra, and fighting to retain our community, retain our culture, it was really, really rough, and it’s taken a lot to get the community to move beyond that mode and into a mode of how do we actually rebuild and repurpose and grow from where we’re at.

Anita Walker:  And this is the amazing part of the story, because this is the moment where so often we hear, “It’s just gone.”  I mean, property values the way they are, development, the way it’s spreading, the artists are just pushed out entirely, and all of the sudden you have a completely different kind of neighborhood of development.  But that’s not happened here, entirely.

Jennifer Mecca:  Not entirely.  We’re trying really hard to rewrite that script, right?  We have two buildings, as I said– 300 Summer Street, which is an artist-owned building, and 249 A Street, which was the first limited equity co-op in the state.

Anita Walker:  So say what that means.

Jennifer Mecca:  It means it’s a condo building, but there is a restriction on the resale value of the property, so that it’s meant to keep the units affordable so that it retains the artist population.  So they’re all restricted for artists.  Each of those two buildings actually have their own kind of internal process.  They’re not part of the City of Boston’s artist certification program, but they do have kind of a review– portfolio review process to get into them.  So those are two properties.  We also have Midway Studios, which was developed in about 2005, I think, and that property originally was developed as a rental property.  The intent was to go into this kind of co-op scenario, but because of the market and some of the financing on it, it ended up just staying rental property.  And it was put on the market in– I want to say 2012 or ’13– I might have that date wrong– but it was put back on the market.  The owners were looking to sell it, and the residents in the building went to the city and said, “We need some help here.  This is meant to be an artists’ building.  How do we retain this?”, and they helped us find a developer to work with.  We worked with New Atlantic Development to basically take over the HUD loan on the building.  The residents in the building worked hard to raise 2.2 million dollars toward a down payment that was needed to pay off one of the loans on the property, and in doing that, we were actually able to retain the building.  We now actually run it in a not-for-profit manner, and so we’re able to manage the rents on it, to keep them affordable for artists, and it is now– as part of that whole purchase process, it’s actually in perpetuity meant to be an artists’ building.  So we use the City of Boston Artist Certification Program.  You have to have a certificate to be in.  We have– about a third of the units are actual affordable units according to the city’s income restriction guidelines and are managed through that program, but the rest are actually affordable.  The rents are much lower than they are in the rest of the Seaport right now, that’s for sure, so– which has its own challenge of maintaining it as artist and not letting it open up to everybody that wants to be in there <laughs> because it’s a good deal.  So yeah, we’ve worked hard to make that happen.

Anita Walker:  So you have a model now and you talked about the building that you’re in having sort of a nonprofit structure.  How did you figure out to do that?  How did you learn that you needed a new model to protect the asset of the building on behalf of the artists.  How did this come to pass?

Jennifer Mecca:  Gosh.  I think it came out of necessary.  <laughs>  Looking at the fact that the building couldn’t go to co-op because some of the types of loans on it, and also looking at the real need for rental situations, right?  That not everyone coming out of school or generally in the arts community has the ability to actually get a mortgage and take out– own a condo, so to speak.  So the real need to kind of keep that– we worked really in concert with the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development.  Sheila Dillon, the housing director there, has been instrumental in helping us work through this, and also just– I think the combination of those of us in the building that understood enough about real estate and having the developer kind of input on that side really was– it was a good combination to make it work.

Anita Walker:  This sounds so complicated. 

Jennifer Mecca:  <laughs>  It is.

Anita Walker:  You’re using a lot of big vocabulary here, and I’m not sure how many artists expect in their lifetime to be able to navigate something as difficult as this.

Jennifer Mecca:  Yeah, it is.  It’s very– it’s a very unique situation that we’ve had.  I mean, I have a background in urban design and planning, so that’s part of what–

Anita Walker:  That’s helpful.

Jennifer Mecca:  That’s where it comes in, right?  But I think just a lot of the people that were instrumental in this had either been in the neighborhood and seen a lot of the other artist housing programs go.  I think also Fort Point is very unique in that way, that because the first limited equity co-op was there, and because FPAC had helped sponsor 300 Summer Street in the development, there was a lot of knowledge kind of in the community already.  I mean, FPAC has been very known for the housing component.  So we’re actually looking to expand this now.  We’re in the process right now of working with another developer who just purchased one of the buildings in the neighborhood, 63 Melcher.  It was a rental property, and we’ve been working with them and the city to maintain– there were five artist units in it right now, as part of the original affordable housing.  We’re actually looking to work with them to purchase those units as a condo themselves while the rest of the units in the building are actually sold off as market-rate condos.  So those– actually it’ll be nine units will remain rental and they will remain affordable, and they will remain artist housing as part of an FPAC component to it, so.

Anita Walker:  What was that conversation with the developer like?  How do you convince a developer that this is– I’m sure the developer, if they can sell the rest as condos, they could sell these too.

Jennifer Mecca:  Well, they were affordable.  They were the affordable component in the building.  So they had a restriction on them to remain affordable, and so they were looking at it as– and I think the city’s interest was to actually maintain more rental housing in the neighborhood because so much is going off to condo.  So I think it was more– it worked well– the relationship worked well on all sides.  And I think, again, having had the relationship that we’ve built with the city in terms of them knowing our priorities has helped us–

Anita Walker:  Piece together–

Jennifer Mecca:  Yeah, piece together the pieces, yeah.

Anita Walker:  Does the developer ever look at the artist as an asset?  This is a building with artists.  Artists actually turn neighborhoods into toney, attractive destinations, and then promptly get displaced.

Jennifer Mecca:  Booted out, right.  <laughs> 

Anita Walker:  So if artists are– we’ve already seen the impact of artists living in a neighborhood or a place and transforming it.  Artists living in a building– it seems to me that would actually be an asset.

Jennifer Mecca:  Yeah, I think there’s–

Anita Walker:  Do developers see that?

Jennifer Mecca:  Some do, some don’t.  I mean, I think there’s the different sides of that story too, because when the properties were first purchased from Boston Wharf, one of the development teams came in and they put together this whole narrative– they had this whole slideshow about how great the neighborhood was going to be because it was an arts neighborhood, and they didn’t care.  They were looking to flip the buildings and sell them off at the highest value.  And so even while they were telling the story about the neighborhood, they were turning around and evicting hundreds of people, right?  But at the same time, other developers have seen the asset, and so in the case of this 63 Melcher component, they actually have worked with us on the branding for the building.  It’s actually being called the Muse Legacy Building and that– actually, they’ve kind of made a nod to the arts component of it, and really the arts studios in there are going to be a quarter of the building.  It’s nine of the 36 units.  So they’re actually really working with us about how to maintain the culture of the place, and use it as a way to kind of help support the narrative of the overall neighborhood.

Anita Walker:  So you’ve been having these conversations obviously for a lot of years now.  Have you had to learn a new vocabulary, a new way to communicate with developers, with city planners, to make your case?

Jennifer Mecca:  Yeah, I think so, and I think that’s part of what we’re learning now as an organization, is how to kind of take our narrative and repurpose it, or kind of make it clear to people what the value of the arts are in the community.  I know a lot of times when we’re looking at grant funding, it’s what are we doing not just from a cultural standpoint but what is the real economic development kind of component to the arts community.  What is the benefit of having people who actually live in the community produce things in the community and be an active part of it, right?  That if you’re– it’s kind of the Buy Local story, right?  So we’ve actually been very proactive in trying to build up what it means for our artists’ arts businesses.  We’ve developed an art lending program, which reaches out to a lot of the corporate entities in the enable to get artwork into their buildings, and it’s a way for FPAC to actually bring in some income that’s not just purely sponsorship, because a lot of times people are like, “Well, why do I want to sponsor you?  What does this do for me?”  And we’ve found that actually this is a good way to kind of have a partnership with the businesses, and at the same time develop an income stream for some of our artists, that everyone gets a stipend or has a contract for the piece being actually in the building.  So we’ve really been focused on kind of developing that language and repositioning how we approach people.  We’re not just looking for, “Hi, we need a sponsorship to support what we do,” but there’s other things we can do in–

Anita Walker:  In a real true partnership, a two-way partnership.

Jennifer Mecca:  Exactly.

Anita Walker:  In working with the city, have you been able to sort of transform from sort of a reactive mode, where you and the city address a fire drill around a building for sale, into a more planning and proactive mode about where the options are going to be, what buildings are probably going to go on the market, what neighborhoods really have that critical mass and are really great neighborhoods for artists, and for the city, in partnership with you and other artists, to sort of be proactively looking at buildings before they’re sold?

Jennifer Mecca:  Yeah, we’ve actually really tried to kind of move in along those lines.  I mean, you’re right, there was the point where we were being reactionary, and we still joke today with the city, like, “We’re going to have to crank up the letter-writing machine.  Look out,” <laughs> and if there’s something that’s really an issue.  But– and I think that’s one thing we’re actually able to do is mobilize people.  But in terms of being proactive and planning, I think it’s really learning how to be strategic and knowing what you’re asking for and not just being reactionary and shouting about a problem, but figuring out what is it that the community needs so that you know how to ask for the right benefits or push for the right pieces.  In terms of the broader city, I know this city is very interested in expanding the artist housing program.  We’ve had– my board vice president, Raber Umphenour, has actually been working with some other neighborhood arts groups on different properties around the city– East Boston, Jamaica Plain– where there’s not the capacity that FPAC has, or has had developed, to reach out and help them figure out how they can kind of move through the process.

Anita Walker:  So you came to Fort Point you said 2002-ish?

Jennifer Mecca:  Roughly then, yeah.

Anita Walker:  Roughly then, and it’s more than a decade later.  Big takeaway.  I mean, what’s the big lesson learned over this time?

Jennifer Mecca:  You can’t fight change.  <laughs>  You have to kind of figure out how you roll with it, and I think that’s kind of one of the things that a community has to do in this situation, is learn what’s really core and important and hang onto those pieces, and learn what pieces you need to kind of reinvent, and think through what happens next.  I mean, one thing– I look at the programs that FPAC’s been running over the last few years, and we’re actually about to start a strategic planning process with our community, looking at: We run an art lending program, we run a floating art program, we’ve done public art programs, we have our open studios programs, which run fall/spring, and also we do a holiday sale.  There’s all these things that we do, and yet how do you balance that with the capacity?  Because we’ve shrunk so much in terms of the number of people and the volunteers, how do you actually balance out the resources, both human resources and financial resources, with the programs that you’re running?  And I think organizations change over time, and recognizing that is both a difficult thing as a community, but also very important and healthy thing to kind of stop and assess where these things are going.  We’re about to open our first arts center, we’ll call it.  We’ve got an 1100-square-foot space in the Envoy Hotel, which is part of the Chapter 91 spaces along the waterfront.  So it’s the first one, although the Society for Arts and Crafts got theirs up and running faster than we did.  We’ve been kind of scrapping for the funds, and we did get a large grant from Mass Develop recently that’s helping us finish the construction.  But it’s a new thing for us, running an arts center.  We’ve run the main Fort Point store for a while, which was all volunteer.  This is a different thing.  It’s kind of taking it to the next level and having to have the space that’s fully staffed, that covers a breadth of programming that– we’re going to have artist talks, performances.  We have facilities for video projection and also typical gallery and kind of retail sales.  So it’s a process of learning–

Anita Walker:  And an evolution.  It’s a real evolution.

Jennifer Mecca:  An evolution.  True.

Anita Walker:  And adapting to change, and not just fighting it–

Jennifer Mecca:  Exactly.

Anita Walker:  –to bring out where you can get a win through the channel.  <laughs> 

Jennifer Mecca:  Right, and moving everybody along at that same time, getting everybody onboard with what needs to happen.

Anita Walker:  Great words of wisdom.  Jennifer Mecca, President of Fort Point Artist Community.

Jennifer Mecca:  Thank you very much.  It’s been a pleasure to be here.

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