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A fight to stay put in ‘Allston Rock City’

The debate over redevelopment of neighborhood’s largest rehearsal space highlights challenges of maintaining Boston’s music scene.

Ian Bouslough and Nick Grieco from Ugly Duck Studios, located inside the Sound Museum. The rehearsal and independent music complex at 155 N Beacon St. is being demolished by a developer, who will replace the space with a life science lab.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Allston-Brighton has long been the heart of Boston’s music scene. Now, some musicians who practice at one of the neighborhood’s biggest remaining studios are making a last-ditch bid to keep it that way.

Tenants at the Sound Museum, a huge rehearsal space that rents much of an old two-story warehouse on North Beacon Street, are urging the life science developer who owns the building they occupy to make room for musicians in the lab campus they’re planning, or at least to help them stay nearby.

In January, development firm IQHQ promised to help the Sound Museum find and move to a “cutting-edge rehearsal and recording facility” elsewhere in Boston, as part of its plan to build nearly 410,000 square feet of lab space on the 135,716 square-foot site. Well-meaning as that pledge may be, musicians worry the move will obliterate what’s left of the ecosystem that helps bands survive in this ever-more-expensive city.

“It’s the last straw for the music community,” said Chelsea Ellsworth, who runs a studio at the Sound Museum. “If they truly demolish this building, I have to leave Boston ... I can no longer afford to have a studio or work here.”

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So as the project has been moving through Boston Planning & Development Agency review in recent months, Ellsworth — who sits on a BPDA advisory board for IQHQ’s project — and others among the Sound Museum’s 300 tenants have been urging the developer to promise to relocate them not just somewhere in Boston, but to keep them as close to the heart of “Allston Rock City” as possible.

And lately City Hall has joined the chorus.

Elected officials in the neighborhood in January urged IQHQ to find room for the Sound Museum in its project on North Beacon Street. And then in February, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture weighed in, noting the Sound Museum is the largest site of affordable rehearsal space in the city and suggesting IQHQ find a way it can coexist with lab space in its current location.

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For its part, IQHQ says it’s still working on a new site. In January, the developer announced a deal with Sound Museum founder William Desmond to relocate the studio, even paying for brokers and architects to find and design new space. They warned that soaring rents could make it hard to find anything like the current 40,000 square-foot space in Allston-Brighton, but also say staying in the neighborhood is still a possibility.

“We have heard the concerns of the artists about potential locations, and are still in the process of scouting several sites, including in Allston-Brighton,” said David Surette, senior vice president of IQHQ, in an e-mail statement. “We want to emphasize that a new site has not been determined, and it is premature to make a formal or informal announcement. When a new site is determined, we will share the location and the plans to recreate the Sound Museum.”

But tenants say the Sound Museum’s location in Allston-Brighton is non-negotiable and relocating the facility simply somewhere else within city limits isn’t enough. Many moved to the area to be near artist resources. Schlepping clear across town would be costly for many musicians, said Nick Grieco, a founder of Artist Impact, a civic association that advocates for Allston-Brighton’s arts community.

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“I don’t think people understand that there’s an element of accessibility and affordability that needs to exist for musicians to exist in a neighborhood,” Grieco said. “I don’t think it’s feasible to expect that a community of thousands of artists are just going to be OK with their workspace being relocated to the opposite side of the city.”

“I don’t think it’s feasible to expect that a community of thousands of artists are just going to be OK with their workspace being relocated to the opposite side of the city," said Nick Grieco, a producer and musician.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Following the recent closures of other music institutions in the area like the Great Scott, the loss of a major rehearsal complex in Brighton will “effectively destroy the music community in Allston-Brighton,” Ellsworth said.

And if Allston-Brighton goes, Grieco said, what’s left of Boston’s music scene may go with it. Lots of other cities — like Nashville and Portland, Oregon — offer an abundance of affordable space and artist resources.

“It’s already hard enough to afford to live in Boston, where there’s a suffocating lack of artist infrastructure,” he said. “And if it’s already questionable as to whether or not it’s worth it to stay in Boston, all you need is for the rug to be pulled out from underneath you like this to go find a new home.”

Still, given what’s happened to other performance spaces, some tenants say a relocated Sound Museum is better than no Sound Museum at all.

“You know how these things go,” said Josh Hager, who commutes from Stow to practice in the Sound Museum. “Usually developers kick people out of something and that’s it, but at least they’re promising a new space.”

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Gene Dante has rehearsed out of the same room in the Sound Museum for more than 10 years. When he heard that IQHQ had purchased the building, he was sad but not surprised, given the proliferation of development across Boston. He sees the fact that the developer is agreeing to relocate the facility at all (and within city limits) as a “silver lining.”

“I know that there’s a huge deal of sentimentality with the Sound Museum, and this is like getting kicked in the heart,” said Dante. “But if [IQHQ is] committed to their promises, and they’re going to at least help relocate the Sound Museum, it’s kind of cool.”

Stuck in the middle are Desmond and his wife, Katherine, who say they’re doing everything they can to keep their tenants’ playing music uninterrupted. They’ve been shuttling between IQHQ, tenants, and city officials to work something out.

“[IQHQ] have their reputation on the line, and I do believe they will rebuild the Sound Museum,” Desmond said. “I’m expecting them to keep their word, and it’s a long process, but I’m hoping we can get our situation settled as quickly as possible and everybody can be comfortable.”

The Desmonds have gone door-to-door talking to hundreds of their tenants to gauge how musicians feel about the relocation. They say a majority are in support of a new Sound Museum anywhere in the city as opposed to having no facility, and only a small percentage of tenants are pushing for it to remain at 155 North Beacon St.

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“It’s good to make that connection again and to just let them know that we’re on it, we aren’t forgetting about them, and we’re trying to do everything we can,” Katherine Desmond said.

At a Jan. 18 virtual public meeting for the proposed project, many of the nearly 150 attendees expressed their concern at what they saw as IQHQ’s consistent lack of communication and transparency.

“As far as relocating tenants, they keep saying ‘we’re working on it, we’re not going to leave you high and dry,’ but of course, I don’t believe that,” said Ian Bouslough, a Sound Museum tenant and IAG member. “I don’t think anybody does.”

In an e-mail statement, Surette said that the firm “has drafted and is negotiating a cooperation agreement” with Desmond to relocate and rebuild the Sound Museum. IQHQ hosted an open house to discuss the relocation with musicians in late February, and Surette emphasized that the company “understand[s] the importance of having facilities like the Sound Museum for artists to hone their skills and further their careers,” and “remains committed to redeveloping the Sound Museum Rehearsal Complex to provide a cutting-edge rehearsal and recording facility for Boston’s music community.”

Ian Bouslough, a studio manager and lead staff engineer at the Ugly Duck Studios. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

But that’s little comfort to musicians like Ellsworth, who says the impending loss of the Sound Museum reflects a larger issue about where the arts stand in Boston. The city has made little effort to protect arts space from the voracious demand for real estate, and artists are getting the message about priorities.

“Artists feel so hurt and abandoned by the city of Boston that for decades they’ve been leaving,” she said. “But if this building is gone, that’s it.”


Annie Probert can be reached at annie.probert@globe.com.