©2002 Weekly Dig LLC

Fort Point: Boston Wharf's Profit Could Be Boston's Loss
In the shadow of The Big Dig an artist community fights for survival
by Sady Sullivan

One of the hearts of Fort Point, the largest artist community in New England, is now gone- despite the residents' many noble legal and activist efforts, including an amazing public art series. The lease at 288-300 A Street, which housed Artists for Humanity, The Revolving Museum, Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and over 50 artists' studios, expired, and the building was cleared out on February 1, 2002 to make it available for "re-development" by Boston Wharf Company, one of the principle landowners in the Fort Point area of South Boston. This historic industrial building will be turned into office space. Of their holdings in the Fort Point area, Boston Wharf's lawyers boast, "35 acres of urban land containing 70 turn-of-the-century buildings successfully rehabilitated and developed over 1,500,000 square feet of first class office, retail and parking facilities."

What is happening to these organizations and artists that were occupying these buildings to make room for potential parking for potential workers at potential companies in potential office space? Some of the artists have found new spaces in which to work. Some have not.

Boston Wharf Company has helped Jerry Beck, founder of the Revolving Museum, find space for one more year. Founded in 1984, the Revolving Museum, a national pioneer in the field of public art, has supported hundreds of artists and thousands of youth and community members and provided over fifty affordable artist studios, exhibition space and educational workshops.

Artists for Humanity, an organization founded in 1991, empowers urban teens by engaging them in the creative process and connecting them to the business community, providing at-risk youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in the arts. AFH's programs are unique and hugely successful, and thankfully, they will be able to continue, as AFH managed to raise enough money from private foundations to purchase a new site. AFH's new building will be "green" i.e. it will utilize renewable energy technology and generate its own energy needs. In accordance with AFH's mission, kids are helping to design the new building- but the capital campaign continues as they still need to raise another $2 million.

With the Big Dig and harbor clean up, re-development of Boston's beautiful waterfront is inevitable. But we are at a pivotal point in deciding just how this neighborhood will be changed- will it be for the greater good of Boston and the city's present and future residents? Or will shortsighted greed win out? Yes indeed, it is one of those watershed moments in history that we are all blithely living through at this moment, and yet it could decide whether or not Boston is a city where we will want (or be able!) to live in a few years time.

History of Fort Point

In 1836, to provide additional wharf space, the newly formed Boston Wharf Company purchased land in South Boston and the rights to the nearby marshy tidelands. Using earth taken from hills that had been leveled and later, rubble from the Great Boston Fire of 1872, Boston Wharf Co. began to fill in the marsh. "Dig and you can find patches of charcoal, twisted ironwork, shoe soles, fragments of old Coke bottles and plates," says Don Eyles, whose sculptures can be seen floating in the Fort Point Channel (by the Children's Museum). The first buildings on the new land were used to store sugar and molasses from the Caribbean that supplied sugar refineries and rum distilleries. In the 1880's, Boston Wharf Co. began to construct the impressive masonry buildings that still stand. By the 1920's, Fort Point became a center for the wool trade industry and other goods. In the 1940s, many of these businesses began to move elsewhere (in fact, the last wool company just left last year) and, as happened in most industrial and mill areas, the buildings became vacant. With the downturn in business and few people monitoring the area, the empty buildings were quite a fire hazard until the 1970s when the artists moved in. Pioneering artists found the perfect space to work in the industrial buildings with their tall ceilings, open space, expansive windows and no neighbors to complain about the noise of power tools. Of course, they had to clean up the long-abandoned buildings first. One Fort Point artist said in his studio there was a "viscous muck on the floor, a rat-turd, asbestos, lead paint stew." Then, in the 1990s, attracted by the "low rent, small-town familiarity and the hint of success," the dot-coms began moving to Fort Point. There was even talk about it becoming a "Cyber District" like New York's Silicon Alley- a place for "really hip companies." (American City Business Journals, 1997) The dot-commers appreciate/d the artists in their neighborhood, but they paved the way for other businesses to move into the area who perhaps do not share this awareness.

Fort Point Today

Fort Point is still the largest artist community in New England, and Boston Wharf Co. is still the principle landowner in the area. Two buildings, 249 A Street and 300 Summer St. are artist-owned, and 33 floors in 17 buildings are rented by artists- but those leases are up within the year, including mainstay of experimental performance and installation work, MOBIUS. This community is in jeopardy.

"The next Open Studios is going to be a Going Out of Business Sale," said one Fort Point artist.

Fort Point Arts Annual Open Studios and other events, exhibitions and performances already attract thousands of visitors. The Institute of Contemporary Art plans to relocate to the new South Boston Waterfront, so there is great potential for this 25-year-old arts community to become even stronger- and yet hundreds of artists and cultural organization are being forced out by the re-development. The Fort Point Cultural Coalition (FPCC), whose members include Fort Point Arts Community, Inc., MOBIUS, the Revolving Museum, Artists for Humanity, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and The New England Foundation for the Arts, was formed in 1999, to preserve their community in the face of real-estate development. FPCC, with support from the Boston Foundation Arts Fund, LEF Foundation, and the A.C. Ratshesky Foundation organizes a public art series: Save Our Studios, using the ingenuity of their community members to attract attention to their cause. For instance, you may remember the Greening of the Summer Street Bridge, when artists Lisa Greenfield, Jennifer Moses, and friends, laid out 5,000 square feet of sod protesting that sidewalks are counted as "open space" in redevelopment plans. This year's public art series is soon to be underway.

Boston Wharf Co., which has been supportive of artists and has even donated space for the Touchable Stories: Fort Point, South Boston installation, finds itself in a tough position at this point, between quick and sure profit to be made by selling buildings to developers like Beacon Capital Partners and converting to office space that will rent for much higher rates than artist space does, or long-term investment in the culture of the neighborhood and quality of life of its current and potential residents.

Boston Wharf Co. general manager Robert Kenney exemplified this struggle when he said to me: "Artists are a valued part of Boston Wharf history [long pregnant pause] and future."

This relationship has been on the rocks for some time- for instance the last time artists negotiated their leases (as a group represented by the Fort Point Arts Community, FPAC) it took two and a half years to complete. Part of the difficulty is that Boston Wharf's parent company, P&O, is based in London- that's P&O, as in Pacific Orient Shipping, which was until recently, it is rumored, owned by the Queen. Boston Wharf has rarely sold any of its holdings. When one of their buildings was up for sale, FPCC made a bid to buy it- and although their bid was equal to that made by Beacon Capital Partners, Boston Wharf sold to Beacon over the artists.

Here's where the myth of the flaky, starving artist comes into play. It's assumed that the artists are too poor or disorganized to buy the buildings- when the reality is that the building owners wouldn't sell to them. No one expects artists to be on top of all the economic and political issues involved in the re-development of the waterfront- and yet they are. Rarely have I seen such a dedicated, informed and active community as there is now in Fort Point working to save their neighborhood. If only every neighborhood had such community (they even initiated a morale-boosting weekly kickball game!). The residents of Fort Point recognize the value of their unique and creative neighbors, artists, cultural creators which unfortunately might go unrecognized until they are all gone and everyone begins wondering how Boston became boring and soulless.

This is a problem for artists all over the city. Shannon Flattery, Fort Point artist and creator of Touchable Stories, co-founded Urban Artists Alliance in the hopes that artist enclaves all over the city can be rescued before too much is lost. She is also a member of the Boston Tenants Coalition, working to create permanent and affordable housing on a local and national level. This issue affects other Boston neighborhood residents, not just artists. How many lifelong residents have been pushed out of their neighborhoods by gentrification?

During the real estate decline in the 80s, the city's Economic Development Industrial Corporation (EDIC) and the city planning committee were folded into one agency: Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). While the BRA makes significant efforts to include members of the entire community in the planning process (they even have an appointed position concerned especially with the needs of artists), having the economic development committee (catering to businesses) and the planning committee (representing the greater good of Boston residents) under the same roof, is like asking the fox to look after the chickens. Susan Hartnett, director of the Artist Space Initiative, feels having both sides as part of the same agency is actually a strength because it helps to really understand both points of view and find the appropriate balance between them. She works closely with FPCC and says that because of their "brilliant and incredible activism" the BRA was informed enough to ensure 183,000 square feet of artist live/work space in Beacon's Midway Development Project. (While the project is still underway, there is some contention that the allotted artist studios will not actually meet the size or affordability needs of artists). But projects that fall under certain size/impact requirements do not need to submit their proposals to the BRA, and as long as they meet existing zoning requirements they will easily be permitted to do what they like. Here's the rub because most of the buildings where artists have been working are zoned for industrial use, converting to office space is simple.

Over the past decade, Boston has accommodated office space for 125,000 new jobs but has only zoned and approved creation of 5,000 housing units, most of which are upscale condos. With the current downturn in the economy, much of this new office space has remained empty, and even buildings in mid-construction can be seen being left to rust (Office space in Allston was abandoned mid-construction and a giant curtain with the image of finished office space has been hung over the skeleton of girders). There was already a significant dip in sale of commercial buildings, down 16 percent from 2000-2001- and that was before a recession was declared. 73 percent of the sales that did happen took place in Boston's neighborhoods as opposed to the major business districts.

When plans for re-developing the Fort Point area started to be discussed in the mid 1990's, the BRA published an "interim report" heavily weighted in favor of commercial development- the word "neighborhood" hardly appeared in this document. Concurrent with the publication of this report, then Governor Weld and Massport were touting the benefits of a football stadium to the Fort Point community. These events galvanized Fort Point, Southie residents and elected officials in protest, eventually thwarting the stadium project.

One of the groups that formed during this period was the Seaport Alliance for Neighborhood Design (SAND). SAND (http://www.seaportalliance.org) worked with the city and other groups to help draft an improved plan- formerly known as the Seaport Public Realm Plan. "We realized that the Fort Point community needed to be pro-active in presenting its vision for development of the waterfront- one which could serve a broad public interest," said Steve Hollinger, a Fort Point artist, and volunteer member. SAND members are currently discussing zoning issues with the BRA and have petitioned the city to designate Fort Point as a historic district.

It is due, in part, to the efforts of SAND and other advocacy groups that Mayor Menino drafted an executive order which stipulates that property owners in Fort Point (and the entire Waterfront) must include a minimum of one third of their development projects as residential (including artist live/work space) and limit office space development to one third. And the BRA assures that Mayor Menino is strongly in support of artists finding live/work space.

According to Hollinger, Fort Point's large property owners, including Gillette, Beacon, and the US Postal Service have all presented "master plans" for the development of their properties to the Fort Point Working Group (a bi-weekly public meeting at City Hall) for analysis, and they are in close accordance with the 1/3 residential mandate. But the lone exception- the Boston Wharf Company, has not provided a comprehensive plan for its dozens and dozens of acres of property. Instead, the company has stated at City Hall that its long terms plans will respond to market demand for office space and that's that.

Seems to me like a big ol' slap in the face to the City of Boston from jolly London based imperialists P&O. And we thought the Boston Tea Party solved all that.

The City of Boston has put in a lot of time, effort, consideration and money into its waterfront development plans. And yet, if Boston Wharf Co. "rehabs" one building at a time, these projects will not be of "major impact" and so they will not have to go through the planning review. Boston Wharf Co. has voluntarily submitted to the planning review for their rehabilitation of 288-300 A Street- because they know that legally everything is watertight. It is when one looks to the big long range picture, building after building of artist space being converted to office space, that it becomes disturbing. And Boston Wharf Co. knows what they are doing- parent company P&O has done this before, systematically eradicating a vibrant artist neighborhood in London.

Large corporate landowners must recognize their responsibility to the environment, the city and its people but humans, trees, art and community don't count for much in this market economy. It is the city's responsibility to encourage these landowners to invest in quality of life, present and future and though they are trying, capital carries a strong voice.

Your comments as a visitor to the SAND website would be appreciated and forwarded for discussion.