Disclosure: I regularly work with the Somerville Arts Council to present festivals in the city.
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“ArtFarm is going to happen,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone told about 55 people who attended a community forum at the Brickbottom artists building last night to hear the mayor “take questions on the future of the Somerville ArtFarm and the city’s commitment to it.”
But people attending the meeting, told the mayor that they were frustrated by the lack of progress in the three years since the city announced that it had won a $415,000 grant from ArtPlace America to fund construction of “a creative commons,” a community facility combining art and agriculture, on the site of the former waste transfer station on Poplar Street at Linwood Street, near Union Square (pictured above).
“It seems to me like this is a bait and switch,” one woman told Curatone.
“What it feels like tonight is pretty devastating,” another woman said.
They were reacting to Curtatone telling the Brickbottom crowd that the city-owned Poplar Street site might have to also—or instead—be used by the city to accommodate other projects. The mayor said the city has to construct a new fire station located in that neighborhood as well as a police station that could be located anywhere in the city.
Brad Rawson, the director of the city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Division, and Rob King, the city’s director of capital projects and planning, told the group that part of the site might also be needed for a pumping station and storm water storage tank that would be part of a major project to separate storm water from sewage. “We can’t move forward with ArtFarm till we know what it looks like, “ King said.
Curtatone said the city has reduced wherewithal to purchase other properties for these projects because of the ballooning costs of real estate in the city and the $50 million the city had to commit to keep the MBTA’s Green Line expansion to Somerville going after state threats to kill the planned train line.
King said the city hopes to complete a space feasibility study for the various projects sometime this fall.
The 2.2-acre site was also contaminated with toxins that needed to be removed, Curtatone said. In the meantime, the city has been allowing construction firms to use the site for staging vehicles and equipment.
“We have some challenges on this site,” Curtatone said. “They are not challenges we cannot overcome.”
The upshot is the Somerville Arts Council constructed a greenhouse on the site a year ago (pictured at top), and a large raised bed and refrigeration unit have been added since, but they sit empty, and unconnected to water or electricity, officials said. The city arts agency has also presented occasional one-day cultural festivals on the site.
“We’re pumped up to do this,” Curtatone said of ArtFarm. “If short term, it’s here, or long-term, or if long-term there’s a better site.”
“ArtFarm on that site, it would be most likely a temporary” development, Curttone said. ArtFarm may be moved to another side, the mayor added. “ArtFarm in our opinion is bold and abnormal and should function long-term.”
“How can we take some piece of that property and clean it up?” a woman in the crowd asked. “We need to start the activation of this idea that is ArtFarm.”
Others asked if the mayor if the city do more at the site for immediate day-to-day use.
Audience members worried that more than $1 million in funding already won for ArtFarm might be lost because of project delays.
“We’re not going to lose the funding opportunities. But we want to do it right,” Curtatone said.
To audience members, who worried that their efforts to help plan ArtFarm over the past three years might be wasted, Curtatone said, “All that work is going to pay off.”
“I do sense in here the frustration. I apologize for your frustration,” Curtatone said. “ArtFarm is going to happen. We’re going to work with you to make it happen.”
Curtatone pledged to return to the group a week or so after Labor Day for more discussion and news of progress the city is making. He quipped, “Hold the pitchforks and knives for one more meeting.”