North End Music and Performing Arts Center (NEMPAC) Executive Director, Sherri Snow, spoke at this week’s meeting of the North End / Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) regarding their pursuit of building space at 128 North Street, the former Tunnel Administration Building.
NEMPAC is asking residents and supporters to email MassDot at: James.A.firstname.lastname@example.org and request the State agency consider including a “community benefit” component as part of the RFP process rather than the current “highest bidder” strategy.
The 128 North Street building, currently owned by the Mass. Department of Transportation, would provide over 6,500 square feet of programming space for NEMPAC consisting of sound-proof music studios, classroom space, rehearsal space, an outdoor amphitheater, and a multi-use performance hall on the top floor. NEMPAC currently operates out of 950 sq. feet on the Prado in the former washhouse. The music & arts non-profit serves over 5,000 students and patrons, including both children and adults.
Bids are due for 128 North Street on December 21st with a minimum bid of $2 million. NEMPAC will be submitting a bid, however, it cannot meet the minimum and is asking State officials to incorporate a community component to the disposition process. NEMPAC is also talking to the North Bennet Street School regarding leasing space should NBSS secure the building in the bidding process.
Former NEMPAC President Matt Black shares his letter to MassDot regarding how NEMPAC could use the 128 North Street building.
Re: Turnpike Authority Building property, 128 North Street, Boston
Mr. Kersten –
Following the December 6th Nazzaro Center meeting in the North End, I am writing to ask the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to reconsider the 128 North Street ‘sell to the highest bidder’ strategy. This property is not a straight optimizable commodity. It is part of our neighborhood and in keeping with its original design intent, still best suited for a public use. The existing RFP must reflect that language.
The building at 128 North Street is a handsome byproduct of an optimistic public investment era. In the 1930s, this grand building was overbuilt for its intended purpose as a glorified toll plaza, but now, it suits perfectly for an educational institution like our local arts organization, the North End Music and Performing Arts Center. Consider this: 128 North Street already looks like a school. In fact, I have asked numerous Greenway tourists what they thought the building was. Almost to a person, they answered “a school.” It’s a given. A semiotic match.
Owing to the very loud location between two active traffic tunnels, this would not be anything close to suitable for housing or any other constant occupancy use (i.e. hotel, bed & breakfast, etc.). Owing to its lack of parking and the peninsular siting, it would not be suitable for a business in need of foot traffic either. However, with the noise of traffic and position at the edge of the neighborhood, it is ideal for a place where you can feel free to practice loudly, and maybe hit a wrong note without upsetting your neighbors. Maybe even to actually sing your little heart out. Our 128 North Street is perfect for the cacophony of a music school and little else.
Moreover, with it’s odd assemblage of spaces, this property would be perfect for classrooms, a small black box theater, public meeting rooms, offices – and for an organization that does children’s theater – storage for props, sets, sound, electric, lights, all of which are spread across the North End in a disconnected hodgepodge of borrowed space. It is clear NEMPAC needs a home, and I will say again, this spot is perfect.
I am deeply connected to the need for public property in the North End. When I was president of NEMPAC from 2010 to 2013, and for the years prior as a vice president and as a board member, I was always scouring the neighborhood for a new home for our students to practice. And as many echoed in MassDOT’s December 6 meeting, there has been nothing available for the public for some time.
MassDOT’s ‘carrot and stick’ approach to North End public mitigation, as mentioned by Representative Michlewitz, accurately describes a neighborhood where promises and expectations have not been met. As part of the approval process, The Big Dig promised to replace some of what had been lost since the highways came. We pictured a new YMCA on Parcel 6 with shared space for theater and a stack of community amenities. Then there was the Boston Museum Project slated for Parcel 12, also with sharable community space. Both proposals vaporized owing to impossible building expenses.
There were other MassDOT opportunities NEMPAC had hoped for, like a possible shared space in the first floor of the Haymarket Garage, but nothing would be made available. The Parcel 7 Blackstone Block development held some promise, but private interests will be occupying every square inch. Parcel 12a would remain a contracted parking lot. All other abutting parcels would lay fallow or tip towards private development – with nothing in between. Everything in the Bulfinch Triangle went straight to open bids. Our front yard was open for business, but it was someone else who took the profits.
Mostly, I was resigned to lose anything proposed on the other side of North Washington Street from the North End. And there were many other losses on this side of North Washington Street. In the last 25 years, the North End was sapped of thousands of square feet of publicly shared space, most notably with
• The North End Union – Stage, shared space on Parmenter Street,
• The Christopher Columbus Center – sold to private developers, now known as 44 Prince, had a stage and lights,
• The Paul Revere School (61 Prince, sold by the city for private housing),
• The Michelangelo School (Charter Street, converted to elderly housing),
• The Knights of Columbus (41 North Margin, private, limited use, beyond repair),
• City of Boston Printing plant (Richmond Street, sold to the North Bennet Street School.
With nothing available, we tried to stretch our footprint. NEMPAC converted the old boiler room into a classroom and sub level storage, doubling the usable footprint of the former restrooms to around 650 feet. Still, it was never going to be enough space.
To make up for it, NEMPAC begged for space everywhere: neighborhood churches, every portable event stage, any available conference room, open spots at the gym, preschool classrooms, sunrooms in private apartment buildings, loosely zoned ‘studio space’ – and even parking lots. NEMPAC has even had to borrow space for its board meetings because our building isn’t big enough for a table.
As NEMPAC president, I tried to spin our problem as a “campus” of locations. Euphemisms aside, that meant nobody knew where they were going on any given day. As a result, the quantity of opportunities waned and despite our best efforts, our ability to educate struggled accordingly. We found it more difficult to retain teachers and staff. Programs were sporadically assembled and attended. We took a hit.
To its extraordinary credit, neighborhood organizations gave what they could to improve our situation. Unfortunately, we’re comparable to a ‘couch surfer’, shuttling from one spot to the next, hoping we don’t wear out our welcome as we borrow space from Old North Church, The Improv Asylum, St Stephens, and any other place that will have us.
We talk of a lack of community participation in the North End. The Arts – through concerts, plays, lectures, music lessons, and much more – give reasons to gather. By putting an another shared space out for the highest bidder, MassDOT is again denying the need for a space to gather. NEMPAC and all our partners in the arts deserve more. This debt is past due.
NEMPAC should be accepted as the tenant of 129 North Street. This should not even be up for discussion. NEMPAC and all of its generous partners in its nearly 20-year run have waited long enough. As a keeper of a common good, you owe a debt to the North End to give the RFP a public component, if not writing it off completely.
NEMPAC literally started in a graffiti covered bathroom where heroin addicts used to shoot up in the ‘80s. It would be criminal to keep it there.
It’s up to you to and the Department of Transportation to do what is right: Change the RFP and enable 11,000 North Enders to have what should be theirs. Make up for nearly 90 years of disruption by paying a debt back to its citizenry. Do this and we’ll call it even.
NEMPAC President 2010-2013
Letters to MassDot regarding the 128 North Street bid can be emailed to James.A.email@example.com.