City tells Somerville Media Center to relocate by April 30

Somerville City Hall is pictured on Feb. 16. Quan Tran / The Tufts Daily

The City of Somerville is requiring Somerville Media Center to relocate from its current home in Union Square by April 30. Formed in March 1983, SMC produces local radio shows and TV shows as well as youth programs that seek to educate children in the use of media tools to tell their own stories. 

SMC also shares the building with the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers, a nonprofit that seeks to help Portuguese speakers in Massachusetts become “active participants in American society while maintaining a strong ethnic identity and a sense of community,” according to its website. MAPS did not respond to a request for comment.

The tenants were first notified they would have to relocate in late fall of 2019, when the aging building, which had not been renovated since the ’90s, sustained heavy water damage. After an independent evaluation identified significant water infiltration problems, the city advised SMC that they should plan to leave the building within six months.

Denise Taylor, director of communications and community engagement for the City of Somerville, explained that a forced eviction for SMC and MAPS “has never been on the table.” 

“The City has sought to set reasonable timelines and deadlines for both organizations to find alternate space and when they have not met those deadlines, expert staff have made careful evaluations to consider safety and each time we have been able to allow them to take more time for their searches,” Taylor wrote in an email to the Daily. 

Taylor noted that even though the city is not forcing an eviction on the two tenants, the state of the building’s structure does require a certain amount of urgency. 

“We cannot … expect temporary repairs made in 2019 to hold indefinitely, and it is time to work toward the building’s closure and repair for everyone’s safety.”

The City of Somerville has, accordingly, been taking steps to find a tenant to occupy and renovate the building once the current tenants leave. The city issued a Request for Proposals looking to find such a tenant on Aug. 11, 2021, in which it was mentioned that those applying would be expected to contribute an estimated amount of $7 million to $10 million toward the building’s renovation. 

The only response received from the request was a joint proposal from developer Union Square Station Associates, also known as US2, and Fab Foundation, the new nonprofit which they propose would occupy the empty building once it is repaired and renovated. Since then, the city has begun an analysis of the proposal and discussions with the two groups to determine whether it’s feasible for them to take over the building’s lease, but it has yet to reach a decision.

Meanwhile, SMC has been looking at various spaces in Somerville in its search to find a new home including former industrial spaces, artist buildings, a former brewery and the third floor of a police station. In the process, they have also spoken to a variety of developers including Somernova and the very tenant that may be replacing them, US2. 

According to Kat Powers, executive director of SMC, it has been difficult to find a space that meets the center’s unique needs.

“We have really bright lights for TV. If you have electricity for an office space, you’re gonna have to rewire that building for a TV studio,” Powers said. “We need something that’s handicap accessible. … We [also] have artists coming in here from Dorchester, Malden, Cambridge, as well as Somerville, [so] we absolutely have to be on public transit.”

Powers mentioned financial concerns about finding a new space, in light of the fact that SMC’s current building is city-owned, and the city has not been charging rent. 

“There are some places in Union and Davis Squares [that charge] $40 a square foot. We’ve been using that money to pay for equipment,” Powers noted.

SMC’s financial struggles have also been exacerbated by the fact that a formerly significant source of funding for them, known as “cable franchise fees,” has been gradually declining. These franchise fees have been historically used to fund public access TV services like SMC as well as education and government access TV services, which collectively are referred to as PEG services. However, they are dependent on the profits of local cable television providers, and in recent years, with the growing national trend of giving up cable TV for alternative viewing options like streaming, it’s become clear that the fees will no longer be able to sustain all three categories.

Mayor of Somerville Katjana Ballantyne has not been oblivious to this issue, and on Feb. 13, she announced a new funding model for PEG access television in which education and government access TV services would shift to being funded by the city’s general budget, and the 5% franchise fees that would normally go to all three types would go entirely to public access TV. Education and government access TV services would be funded through the mayor’s proposed budget, which the city council will not review until June. The funding shift is contingent on the budget’s approval.

Powers said that even if the funding model does get passed, it will not completely solve SMC’s financial issues, considering the money will likely need to be used to cover its rent in 2024.

“[The funding is] a lovely gift,” Powers said. “It is fantastic. This will help shore us up in 2024. Right now, we’re looking at two issues, however: how to pay for 2023, and if that money is used to pay rent, what other funding sources can we use to build a studio.”

She explained that SMC will look to the community for help in covering costs.

“We’re gonna have to lean on the community for a lot,” Powers said. “We’re going to have to have a fundraiser … [and seek out] corporate sponsorships. … We have no problem asking Somerville to step up because they’ve been doing so for 40 years.”

In addition to Ballantyne’s proposed funding model, the city has taken other actions to support SMC and MAPS in their relocation processes. 

“The City has offered substantial staff support to help both organizations seek new suitable space and staff have and continue to search listings, tour sites, and connect both organizations to property owners,” Taylor wrote.

However, in a testimony given by City Councilor Matt McLaughlin on Jan. 12 in favor of a resolution to extend the Media Center’s deadline to relocate further from its current one, he noted that he believed that this approach was insufficient.

“It’s not enough to say we’re gonna help you find a home. We need to give them a home,” he commented.

In his testimony, McLaughlin cast doubts upon the administration’s public attribution for the Media Center’s relocation, suggesting the city’s true intent is to make space for the nonprofit Fab Foundation.

“The idea that the structural problem is the reason we need MAPS and the Media Center to leave [is] a total falsehood,” McLaughlin said. “If it was an actual issue, they should’ve condemned the building. I just don’t believe that the roof is the reason why we can’t have a media center there. The real reason is we have a new nonprofit coming to town and we need to make room.”

He ended his testimony with a declaration that in the future, he will not approve of FabLab’s occupation of the building, regardless of whether the two current tenants are removed from their respective spaces or not.

“Eventually they’re gonna be asking us for some form of approval for the FabLab, and I’m not supporting anything,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t care if you evict all the tenants, and two years later, decide you want to do a FabLab. If I’m here, I’m not voting for it.”

At the same meeting McLaughlin delivered his testimony, the city council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution calling on City Hall to reverse its decision to remove SMC and MAPS and to find them suitable homes in Somerville before any further action is taken.

While the resolution cannot compel the administration to act in a certain way, Powers still cited it as a “highlight of some of the great support we have in the community.”

Powers also expressed gratitude for McLaughlin and Jesse Clingan, his fellow councilor who was also a former student at SMC.

“Their support has been immeasurable and always will be,” she said.

She also nodded to them as examples of SMC’s mission to “give people the education in order to tell their own stories and to be activists in their community” as being accomplished.

Stressing the larger importance of the Media Center’s longevity, she said, “We want to make sure that the kids … taking classes [here] can continue to do that, so we can create more city councilors or … HBO directors or singer songwriters. I mean, there’s a lot of different folks who came out of this building.”

Powers hopes for a peaceful resolution to the issue and for the SMC to have “a long-term space in Union Square where we can have the mayor and everybody else come and celebrate with us.”

“We turn 40 on March 21,” Powers said. “We’re trying to figure out how to make sure we’re protecting digital arts and media here in Somerville for the next 40 years.”


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