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The Boston Globe

Arts

At Fort Point studios, artists feel betrayed

Midway Studios was a cherished housing enclave for artists until hopes were dashed and a military helmet firm moved in

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

David Rogers’s plans to expand his business have angered his neighbors, artists who live in Midway Studios.

David Rogers wrote the infamous note on Valentine’s Day. He was scrambling to leave the office at 15 Channel Center St. to take his wife to Legal Sea Foods when two artists stopped him.

The artists lived upstairs and, like many other Midway Studios residents, they were unhappy with Rogers’s plans to expand his company into the downstairs theater of the building they shared in Fort Point. The artists felt Rogers’s company, Ops-Core, which makes military helmets, shouldn’t operate at Midway, a building designed as live-in studios for artists.

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Out of frustration, Rogers dashed off a blistering note on his cellphone as he waited for his table.

The neighborhood “posers,’’ he wrote, “are merely . . . drama queens who use art as an excuse to justify and rationalize their pathetic existence while mooching from others to sustain a living.’’

He continued: “The majority of the people we are protecting are under 20 years old and have signed up for military service to earn money for college. They are not living off their parents, trust funds, welfare, or mooching off the American taxpayer like many of the residents of this building.’’

The conflict between Midway’s residents and Ops-Core boiled over last week in a packed, three-hour-plus community meeting. The battle, though, is rooted in the larger and more complex history of Midway Studios, and of the city’s efforts to create an affordable enclave for artists. It is about the hope the complex offered when it opened in 2005 and the failure to deliver on its original promise that residents would be able to eventually buy the spaces in the building they were renting.

“Midway is a complete disaster,’’ says Nicholas Ortolino, 42, an assistant professor of industrial design at Wentworth Institute of Technology and a Midway Studios resident since 2005. “It was nothing but a bait and switch.’’

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Others disagree and stress that despite some of the problems encountered after the opening, the building has made Fort Point better.

“Did Midway turn out the way we originally envisioned? No,’’ says Cheryl Forte, a former manager for the project. “But is it better that Midway Studios exists today? I’d say yes.’’

Rogers’s blowtorch of a message aggravated the artists’ feelings of betrayal, and added to the distrust of Keen Development, the building’s landlord. A week later those feelings further intensified when a crew hired by Rogers to refinish floors failed to properly vent the space. Polyurethane fumes poured into the brick studios. Some artists were driven out overnight.

Two days later the Boston Redevelopment Authority forced Ops-Core to stop work while it examined its plans. And a group of about a dozen residents gathered in filmmaker Raber Umphenour’s sixth-floor space, with Rogers’ response very much on people’s minds.

“That letter speaks to the capacity of the recklessness,’’ said Umphenour, who lives on the sixth floor of Midway with his wife, Jenni. “If somebody who is leading a business can speak that way to the neighbors, it’s not hard to see how they can take reckless actions to send fumes through the building.’’

New affordable studios

The e-mail went out on April 28, 2004. Heidi Burbidge, a BRA senior project manager of the artist space initiative, had great news. A new building would offer 89 studios for artists to live and work. These spaces, she wrote, would be rentals for five years and then available for sale as a co-op, meaning the studios would be affordable. Plus, the building would have theater and rehearsal space, office and retail areas for arts organizations, and a café. Marsha Kartzman, an artist in her mid-50s at the time, signed up right away.

“It was just perfect,’’ she said. “I wanted to live in a community of artists. It was an area I know. I was finally going to be able to own something. The first few years were exactly like that. It was fantastic.’’

David Rogers also signed up. He had started a graphic design company in the early ’90s called Artisent in a one-room studio on Melcher Street. Soon after, he added Ops-Core, a company that manufactured the military helmets. As work increased, Rogers moved to Summer Street and Congress Street. Then Midway opened.

The building represented hope for artists struggling to hold on as renovated factories were turned into pricey condos. The key player was Bob Kuehn, a Yale graduate turned developer who specialized in affordable housing and mixed-use developments. He founded his company, Keen Development — a play on his name — in 1976 and had developed West End Place, Anderson Place, and the Baker Chocolate Factory, among other projects.

Kuehn borrowed $18 million to pay for the renovation. Despite the financial challenges of taking on a building with so much affordable housing, he dismissed the advice of a consultant who told him he would never make the theater space work financially.

The spaces at Midway were far from luxury. Walls were primed, not painted, and renters were expected to make their own improvements. They didn’t mind. In those early days, the project, with offers of eventual ownership in brochures, attracted a range of artists, from Fort Point veterans to newcomers.

Eric Levin, a 28-year-old photographer, found a 1,500-square-foot unit that he could barely afford. He split the $1,825 a month rent with a roommate and, three years after moving in, struck a deal to rent a downstairs commercial space for his photography business. He also began to make internal calculations about the conversion of Midway to co-op. Numbers were being thrown around, and it looked like he might be able to get his unit for just over $200,000.

He wasn’t the only one doing the math. Kartzman, Rogers, and a group of early residents were also excited. They assumed their chance to buy would come in 2010.

Unkept promise

The trouble, for Midway, started in the summer of 2006. That’s when Kuehn died of a heart attack.

Daniel Taylor, the executor of Kuehn’s estate, and others discovered an important overlooked provision in the terms of the original loan. The housing bonds required a 15-year waiting period before the rentals could be sold.

The discovery created a rift between Keen and the artists, who couldn’t believe that a provision so blatantly at odds with the original promise of the Midway could have been an honest error.

“Nobody knew? I can’t see how that can possibly be true,’’ said Ortolino. “I can’t believe anybody could be successful in business and overlook such a dramatic condition.’’

With trust eroding, Taylor had another problem. The original financing for Midway had been set up for only five years. The economy had collapsed, and lenders were hesitant to make big loans. As 2010 approached, Taylor said he feared foreclosure.

Keen hired a real estate attorney to work on the co-op issue. This led to an attempt, late in 2009, to convert Midway. The earlier dollar figures were no longer discussed. Units were far more expensive than residents had expected. When Midway asked for a refundable, $1,000 deposit to show who might buy, just 36 residents stepped forward. That group included Rogers.

That wasn’t enough, said Taylor.

“To get financing, banks need to be assured that it’s going to be a residentially owned building for the most part,’’ he said. “So what we were faced with is the unfortunate situation of those who didn’t want or couldn’t buy their co-op, we’d have to kick them out of their apartments. That was a bitter pill for us.’’

Theater space leased

As his company grew, Rogers kept the design group, Artisent, in an office space at Midway but moved the helmet operation, Ops-Core, to a larger space on Summer Street. He began to talk about bringing that side of the business back to Midway last year.

Keen liked that idea. The Discovery Channel, the Boston Conservatory, and Actors’ Shakespeare Project had rented space over the years, but none could sign for as much time or money as Keen wanted.

In 2010, Keen had refinanced, but with a catch. The bank required Keen itself to lease the theater space for $3 million over 10 years, in order to guarantee that income stream. Without a tenant, Keen Development would have to pay $300,000 a year out of pocket.

In September, Rogers signed a five-year deal to lease that theater space with an option to extend to 10. His rent would almost cover the $300,000. Few knew about the arrangement. Not even the BRA was told, even though the agency needed to approve such a change.

On a recent morning, he showed off what he said was an area where helmets, made off site, were simply adorned with straps, pads, or, a new coat of paint. There was nothing to fear, he said.

Despite complaints from residents, the city agreed. Kairos Shen, the BRA’s chief planner, and Bryan Glascock, the acting commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, toured Ops-Core after the shutdown and felt it posed no danger to residents.

Shen had even worked out a compromise that he was eager to share with residents who attended last week’s community meeting at the nearby Artists for Humanities: Give up the larger space, and the BRA would require Keen to create a smaller dedicated space for a theater.

Shen barely got to share his idea. For more than three hours, artists who live in Midway spoke against the plan. So did state Senator Jack Hart and City Councilor Felix Arroyo.

Then Ortolino took the stage. His friends from the beginning were no longer there, he said. Kartzman moved to Providence in 2011, unable to pay her rent at Midway. Michael Tyrell and his wife did the same.

Ortolino stood in front of the 150 people and reached into his backpack for a piece of paper. It was the original, 2004 e-mail from Burbidge.

He read it aloud. Midway, it said, would be a rental space that artists could buy in five years. There would be retail space on site, the theater, and a café.

“I trusted this document, like many of you,’’ Ortolino said. “So here I am. What is left on that list?’’

The crowd laughed.

“How is this the original mission of Midway?’’ he shouted and turned to Shen and the other officials standing nearby. “That is my question. How do we push the reset button? What do we have to do to get back to the original mission?’’

During the hearing, two Midway artists demanded an apology from Rogers. He didn’t offer one.

Chris Powers, an audio engineer and composer who has lived at Midway since 2009, said in an interview that the Ops-Core controversy may have been a blessing for the way it unified residents after the co-op conversion debacle ripped apart many relationships within the building.

“The David Rogers thing was kind of a unifying point for a lot of people,’’ he said. “I feel like maybe we’re becoming more of a community.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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