Joseph Wardwell has seen it all before. With the eviction of over 50 artists and small businesses at 59 Amory St. in Jamaica Plain over two decades ago, he lost his painting studio to new management who discontinued their lease with the tenants.
Now another workspace is under threat, with the pending sale of Humphreys Street Studios, in the Uphams Corner neighborhood of Dorchester.
In May the building’s four owners signed a purchase offer with Weston-based Kendall Realty. A 60-day due diligence period ends on July 5, and the tenants, who have submitted their own offer for the property, are racing against that deadline to convince Kendall Realty and its agent Mai Luo to back out of the deal. The artists have organized a digital campaign (#ARTSTAYSHERE), contacted the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, created an online petition requesting support from Uphams Corner neighbors and the broader arts community, and sent letters to Kendall Realty advocating for their own proposal to purchase the building.
The situation feels all too familiar to Wardwell, a longtime tenant at Humphreys Street who has watched creative communities disappear across greater Boston. Since 2018, artists at Piano Craft in the South End, 128 Brookside Ave. in Jamaica Plain, and EMF Music Community in Cambridge have all been ousted from their workspaces due to gentrification. New developments and rising rents threaten Boston artists with displacement, and the artists of Humphreys Street Studios fear a similar fate.
Founded in 2002, the Humphreys Street Studios provides affordable workspace to 44 painters, illustrators, sculptors, designers, and artisans.
Despite assurances from Jim Cooper, one of the building’s owners, that the buyer doesn’t intend to evict the artists, they have had no contact with Kendall Realty since it put in its offer, nor would Kendall respond to requests for comment from the Globe. The artists worry that even if Humphreys Street remains as studio space, a new landlord would raise their rent, effectively forcing them out.
Any expectation that rent will remain stable forever is unrealistic, according to Cooper, who says the building must keep up with rising market rates and the changing landscape of Uphams Corner.
“The artists want to continue paying low rents forever. It’s not going to happen. They had a great deal for 20 years, and now the rents are going to go up a little bit. That’s perfectly reasonable,” Cooper said.
In 2002, the original founders of the studios, sculptor Joseph Wheelwright and artisan Neal Widett, along with co-owners Cooper and Peter Haines, converted the abandoned Daloz Dry Cleaners into the Humphrey Street Studios. They hoped to provide an affordable studio space for Boston-based artists. With Wheelwright’s passing in 2016 and Widett’s in 2019, partial ownership of the property transferred to their widows. Cooper said maintenance of the building has become a strain on the remaining four owners.
When the building went up for sale in the summer of 2019, tenants were apprehensive of what might come next. They organized a tenants association and created a preservation steering committee. In partnership with Place Tailor and New Atlantic Development, a real estate company with a history of involvement in affordable housing and artist live-work spaces, they came up with a plan to purchase the studios.
Their initial offer of $2,750,000 included an environmental contingency to address an underground chemical leak from the building’s former use as a dry cleaning business. The building’s owners balked at that condition.
That’s when Kendall Realty stepped in to outbid the tenants association.
When the tenants found out about the competing offer — its amount has not been disclosed — they raised their bid to $3 million and lifted the condition that the sellers would be liable for any environmental cleanup.
In the artists’ proposal, their development partners would pay cash to purchase the property. They would retroactively apply for city subsidies under the Community Preservation Act, which provides financial assistance for the preservation of affordable housing, historic properties, and open spaces for outdoor recreation. The developer would then transfer the deed to a tenant-controlled nonprofit while retaining ownership of a vacant backlot where it would create affordable housing.
But their offer came too late: The owners and Kendall Realty had already made their deal, which has now advanced to its final stages.
The tenants say that they did not find out about the sale until after the signing, and that the owners failed to uphold an oral agreement that would have given them the right of first refusal, an option to match a competing offer from other prospective buyers. Cooper said that’s not so and that he rejected the request for a right of first refusal.
“It was very surprising to us when we learned that the owners had signed another offer,” said Cristina Todesco, a theater set designer and a 17-year tenant of Humphreys Street. Todesco has been sending emails every week to Luo and Cooper since late April. She’s followed up with a certified letter requesting a meeting with the current owners and Kendall Realty.
“Now there is no communication,” Todesco said last week.
Cooper said that Kendall Realty has no obligation to meet with the tenants until after the sale is finalized. But with no word from Kendall Realty, they are fearful about the future.
Full-time artists whose livelihoods depend on the stability of their workspaces fear that the sale hinders their ability to commit to future projects. It is difficult for an artist to take on new work that may be interrupted if the landlord decides to raise rents or evict tenants.
Gillian Christy, an industrial sculptor who has been at the Humphreys Street Studios since 2013, says that access to a large-scale studio is critical to her work. She welds and grinds metal into art. Her work with heavy machinery requires the flexibility to store hundreds of pounds of materials. She is worried that the sale may mean a delay in production.
Many of the tenants, including Christy, have created public art for the city. With an interest in keeping Boston artist-friendly, the Office of Arts and Culture has been sympathetic of the effort to preserve Humphreys Street Studios. It has released statements in support of the #ARTSTAYSHERE campaign and provided funding for a consultant’s study on the building’s environmental conditions, financing, and governance in preparation for the artists’ offer.
“We know there are currently not enough affordable artist spaces in Boston, and the loss of another space has devastating effects on Boston’s arts community,” Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture, said in a statement.
According to the city’s Master Artist Space web data, there are currently 48 search results for work and live-work creative spaces in Boston.
“This is a part of a larger story about gentrification,” said Bill Hardy, the owner of New Atlantic Development, the tenants’ partner in the bid to buy the property. “The city has lost a lot of artist resources, and that’s what’s at risk here.”
Kyung Mi Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.