Local musician Anna Rae says she was surprised and angry when she found out that her band and nearly 200 other artists and musicians were being evicted from the EMF building near Central Square this past February.
“It’s devastating for the individual artists and the music community,” Rae says. “It’s a critical resource that we need to do our work.”
For nearly a decade, the building, located on Brookline Street, has served as a “one-stop shop” where artists could rehearse, record, network, and even get their music played at the radio station that once operated there, says Rae, who is part of a band called Hemway.
“It was basically a place where artists could go to develop,” Rae says. “It was everything from meeting people and getting into a band, to finding your sound and developing it, to recording that sound, to having it played on the radio and being interviewed and learning how to promote shows.”
The building contains 60 band spaces, about a dozen work spaces, a CD production company, and three recording studios. The rents are more affordable than at most comparable spaces, and the building is close to Central Square, where musicians have found work performing at places like The Middle East, The Plough and Stars, and The Cantab Lounge.
But on Feb. 28, building owner John DiGiovanni, president and CEO of Trinity Property Management, notified the building’s tenants that they had 60 days to vacate the premises.
When asked why the building owners were making the artists move out, building manager Bob Logan told Scout in an email that “Century-old buildings are typically in need of significant overall repair.”
DiGiovanni did not respond to requests for comment. The Boston Globe reported that DiGiovanni says the building will undergo a “wholesale renovation”: “We knew going in that this building was going to need upgrades and repairs. We came to the conclusion that there’s no way to do this in a piecemeal fashion.”
DiGiovanni “has not yet hammered out a plan for the building’s future,” the Globe reports.
While city officials were able to convince DiGiovanni to extend the deadline until May 31, Rae says that if the building closes, many of those tenants could be forced to leave Cambridge because the cost of renting a new space is too expensive.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Rae says.
The Cambridge Day reported on May 10 that city officials were withdrawing from further negotiations with DiGiovanni, and that the eviction deadline would not be pushed past May 31.
The building was originally home to EMF (Electrical Motor Frequency) Electrical Supply from 1924 until it closed in 1995. In 2006, William “Des” Desmond, owner of the Sound Museum in Brighton, says he spoke to the Katz family—which owned the building and operated the electrical supply company—about running an affordable arts and music incubator in the building.
Desmond had been working to renovate warehouses to create inexpensive band spaces since about 1984, and says he “saw a business opportunity in creating the spaces there” because it was probably the “last inexpensive building in the area.”
“I knew that was gold for the artists and musicians,” Desmond says.
He says he was able to lease the building for “very cheap” because it was in “very bad shape” at the time. He was then able to work with the Katz family to make it “habitable.”
“We replaced the roof [and] did a lot of work to it,” Desmond says. “I subdivided it into band spaces and the arts studios.”
New Alliance East and New Alliance Audio were among his first tenants. Desmond also started WEMF Radio to help promote the bands and studios.
Tenants paid $100 per month for drum rooms, $550 for practice space, and between $700 and $1,400 for recording space under Desmond’s management.
Desmond managed the building until 2016, when it was sold to DiGiovanni. Logan is now the building’s manager.
Musician Jonathan Glancy saw an ad for the building in DigBoston shortly before it opened. He says he had rented space from Desmond before and moved quickly to reserve a room. “I wanted to be one of the first people there, and I was,” Glancy says.
He’s been practicing there for the past 11 years, and says it’s unlike any other space he’s ever worked out of.
“The community of the EMF is a really beautiful thing,” Glancy says. “It’s just a mecca for creativity and people who want to have a space to make their music or art.”
The community members look out for one another, he says—he can remember three occasions over the past 11 years where someone forgot expensive equipment in the hallway or parking lot and later had it returned to them.
“In all three of those cases, people who could have easily walked away with very expensive equipment went out of their way to contact the people that lost them, or the person that lost them put a flier on the wall, and then someone called them,” Glancy says. “This is a community that really cares about each other and takes care of each other.”
Melissa Nilles says her band, Miele, has been practicing at EMF for four years. The room is shared by 13 people, who split the $465 a month rent, which comes to about $35 per person.
Nilles says she’s looked for a new space at the Sound Museum in Brighton, The Loft in Somerville, and another facility in Malden, but the buildings were either full or not conveniently accessible by public transportation.
She says it’s possible her band could break up if they are not able to find a new home.
“I think it will cause a lot of problems if we do not find a new space,” Nilles says.
The plight of bands and musicians at the EMF has caught the attention of city officials. The City Council voted on March 26 to consider creating an arts overlay district in Central Square that would incentivize businesses to provide affordable space to artists.
“The basic idea of any overlay district is to place a set of additional requirements and incentives on top of the base zoning for an area in order to shape new development to meet certain objectives—such as providing space for arts uses,” Vice Mayor Jan Devereux told Scout in an email.
The zoning would have to define what types of arts uses qualify, as well as what happens if the use conflicts with the uses allowed by base zoning, according to Devereux.
“The hardest part is determining the level of incentives needed to produce the desired result in a market economy,” Devereux said. “The overlay could increase the allowed height or density for the site in exchange for providing a certain amount of space configured and reserved for an arts use; the zoning could even require that the rent be kept below market.”
Still, Devereux says there are no guarantees that an overlay district would be enough to convince developers to rent space to artists at below-market rent.
“It’s still a market economy,” Devereux said. “So a developer might decide it wasn’t worth including an arts use if the project was more lucrative or simpler to do without it, unless a minimum amount of arts space was required to be included in every project and unless the developer sought a variance on the basis of the requirement posing a hardship.”
Mayor Marc McGovern said in a statement on his Facebook page that he, Councilor Alanna Mallon, and Cambridge City Manager Louis A. DePasquale had met with DiGiovanni and worked out an extension giving the artists until May 31 to vacate the property.
The City Council also voted on April 2 to ask DiGiovanni if he’d consider selling the building to the city. As of press time, the city had not reached a deal with DiGiovanni.
McGovern told Scout in a follow-up email that the only long-term solution to preventing local artists and musicians from being displaced from Cambridge would be for the city to purchase a building and provide them with affordable rental space.
“The only way to ensure that we have an affordable artist space is if it’s in a city-owned building,” McGovern said. “Otherwise, there will always be a risk that the building could be sold, as we are seeing with the EMF building.”
Desmond says that if the city bought a building, he’d be happy to manage it.
“I’d be willing to manage it and do everything that I did before,” Desmond says. “Build out the studios, everything.”