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Mayor Curtatone, esteemed Alders, and members of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development,

We board members of the Somerville Arts Council are excited to hear about your open-discussion series on zoning. It is testament to the openness of your administration that you are hosting these meetings. We plan on attending the July 10th meeting on the arts and the creative economy, and offer these thoughts in writing before the meeting by way of broaching certain topics that we and other members of the creative community have been talking about lately.

Somerville has built a name for itself as a home for the arts and cultural innovation. Many of our neighbors are writers, painters, actors, storytellers, musicians and every other type of creator in between. Our creative residents have helped make the city the vibrant community that it is — all the while helping to build and sustain to the local economy.

This is far from a secret. A recent NPR episode on what the new Boston arts commissioner should do for Boston included a lengthy discussion of Somerville’s creations; cultural critic Greg Cook, for instance, went into great detail about our festivals like Honk and Porchfest.

But more and more of Somerville’s creators are leaving town for affordable space elsewhere. This is because Somerville’s home values and rents have increased by a third in the past 5 years, with the average home jumping to $462,000, and the average apartment now renting for $2,300. During this same 5 year period, the US has seen a 10% inflation in the cost of living.

As board members of the Somerville Arts Council, we are glad to see the city and various nonprofit organizations take a number of steps to keep residents in town and offset the rising cost of living. We applaud their efforts, and look forward to even more work being done in this area. And we feel strongly that this energy also be directed to keeping the city’s creative community here in town. A Somerville with fewer artists would be a less vibrant place.

One solution is to expand, and strengthen, the 2009 arts overlay zoning district. This district sits in and around Union Square, and is designed to include space for the city’s creators. Among other zoning changes, the district allows for arts-related uses, such as live/work spaces, studios, galleries, etc. Its provisions makes it easier for people who want to set up shop in existing space by relaxed parking requirements, and it awards density bonuses to developers who create new spaces that offer arts-related uses.

When it was devised through the vision of the Mayor, the Alders, and the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, the arts overlay zoning district was hailed by arts organizations like the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and by members of the planning community alike as a model. It was one of the first such overlays in the region, and has since served as the inspiration for rezoning discussions in a number of cities and towns in Massachusetts.

The arts overlay zoning district is yet another innovation that we should feel proud of. And it’s an innovation that should be expanded. We’re at an exciting time for Somerville, as we see more and more growth and development. We’ve got a unique opportunity to build for the future, and to redefine what can be built. So let’s take the arts overlay district, and expand it. Let’s expand the overlay to other parts of Union Square. Let’s also look to other parts of Somerville, and find other sections where we can encourage space for creativity. Let’s take the small footprint of the arts overlay district, and make it the blueprint for more creative zones throughout the city.

And while we’re at it, let’s sharpen this tool, and give more incentives to landlords and developers, so they will want to provide spaces for creatives in their properties. Since the overlay was approved, only new businesses using existing spaces have taken advantage of the code. No new artist live/work spaces have been created, even though that was an important part of the zoning. We understand that part of this is due to banking practices, but another part seems related to incentives. If the incentives are stronger, then owners and developers will choose to participate more, and the zoning ordinance will become even more effective towards its stated purpose. And Somerville’s cultural vibrance and creative economy will only increase.

As we mentioned before, this letter represents some ideas that have come up in our discussions. Of course, these are only a few potential solutions, and they only deal with zoning issues, not other mechanisms that might solve the issues we’re facing. We have seen the city implement a number of innovative ideas, and look forward to seeing even more.

We’ve spent decades drawing creative people to Somerville, and have enjoyed the cultural and economic wealth that these creative citizens have provided the community as a whole. So let’s spend some time and energy finding ways to keep them here. Let’s keep what we’ve built, and build it even stronger.


The Somerville Arts Council advisory board
Tim Devin, chair
Valeria Amato
Kelvy Bird
Tori Costa
Jacy Edelman
Michael J Epstein
Nicole Pierce
Robert Smyth


32 Responses to “Letter on zoning from the Somerville Arts Council advisory board”

  1. Uncle Rocco says:

    Dear Artists

    Thank you for helping me to create an image of Somerville as ‘hip and happening’. It was quite a struggle there for years. Now that the real estate speculators and people that make way more money than you’ll ever dream of have fallen for it, your services will no longer be needed.

    But thanks for everything. And best of luck in Lynn and Brockton . . .

    Love Joe

  2. Jack the Destroyer says:

    So, is it a good time to sell my multifamily now? I want to move to Costa Rica, and I cannot wait to get out of here.

  3. jamie says:

    This is highly offensive to me. The Arts Council is so self-absorbed it is beyond belief. Where is the zoning for teachers? Where is the zoning for treatment facilities for the mentally ill or those suffering with addiction? Where is the zoning for the disabled? Where is the zoning for the elderly? I know sane artists, who no longer belong to the Arts Council because this notion is so absurd. It shows us where the Mayor and the Administration stand, though, for sure. Not with the hardworking blue collar workers, but rather with the artists, whose ware for the most part, I for one cannot afford. Thank you, though, Arts Council for presenting your feelings so publicly.

  4. A. Moore says:

    Sounds like we really should put these artists above the homeless and hungry in Somerville which has been on the rise. I am sure they will appreciate this more than we do.

  5. ritepride says:

    They wanted the Artists Colony down by the railroad yards (old A&P) They got it. Then they bitched about the noise of the trains which were there before the artists. a city 4 sq miles, the artist have gotten more than their fair share and freebees. You want more? Move to a bigger city, the taxpayers in this city cannot afford you and cannot afford elected officials who support these off the wall ideas. Boston likes it let Boston open up its arms and take you in. I’m for arts to a point and this far exceeds common decency to the citizens.

  6. James says:

    I think this is a fantastic proposal.

    To respond to the critics, what’s your idea? You just want to hand the keys over to the develpers and say good luck?

  7. Frank Rizzo says:

    Fahk aht, khed.

  8. more, more, more says:

    so tired of artists. I work hard, and if I decide to quit and stay home, create art, would you really support me financially? Because I’m talented but I have this drive to live indoors and have health insurance. I cannot understand why this is being suggested. I am a Social Worker, and am one of the folks being driven out of here because I earn crappo money. I’m devoted to my work, and it’s important to society. But I get no support with my living space. Seriously, this has to end. There are so many people who could use this type of support, why artists?

  9. James says:

    To more more more, why is it either / or? Why do you think the city can either support artists, or support other people? Why can’t it be both? Why can’t supporting artists just be part of a number of things the city does?

    ps– Social workers are great! Glad you’re part of our community.

  10. R says:

    @more, more, more
    “I work hard” – meaning artists don’t work hard?
    “I’m devoted to my work, and it’s important to society.” Guess what, buddy? Art is important to society.

  11. Esteban says:

    I am hoping that Mayor Joe will propose bringing some of the poor people crossing our border for a better life to live in Somerville. Viva Mayor Joe!!!!

  12. A. Moore says:

    I think I would rather support programs like the YouthHarbors program that mean something. My father builds toy for toys for tots and does not ask for a dime for anything. He is 90. Get a real job and. I don’t want to be paying for these things which do nothing.

  13. rags says:

    Maybe its be but id prefer a building full of artists or poor elderly than half a building of section 8… and all would count towards our affordable income goals

  14. Johnnie Jazz says:

    This is disgusting that it is even being considered. Artists want more? Guess what — the city is expensive now for all of us, but we – normal people who work “real” jobs – aren’t getting a thing in subsidies and special considerations. And to the nitwit who said “Why can’t it be both?” or to paraphrase what you mean “Why can’t we all get free stuff!??? I want a pink pony!” — Who pays for all the free stuff you want? You do realize money doesn’t grow on trees, right?

    If you’re an artist and struggle it’s because your art s@cks and nobody wants to buy it. Either become a better artist, move or suck it up and realize that you made the choice to be an artist knowing that many artists struggle. To ask for our tax money to go and support your failed attempts at making a living thru art is disgusting.

    This mayor is such a corrupt politician – he’s created this mess where certain people feel so entitled now that they demand things be given to them. Watch – he’ll give in too.

    Our property taxes went up last year alone on average 50% (some 100%) because of inflated appraisals and him NOT lowering the %. If you jack appraisals up 50% you know you’re stealing from city residents and this jack@ss who runs has zero regard for the average taxpayer. Will someone please run against him. We need someone honest and not someone looking for his next climb up the rung like Joey tickets is.

  15. jamie says:

    So the arts community has the old Armory, they are getting the old transfer station, they have studio/living spaces at brickbottom and on Vernon Street, and now they want Union Square, too? Art is important to society? You bet it is. So is education. So is human services. So is public safety. I’m tired of this attitude that art is more important than anything else. Wouldn’t it be nice if just one of these spaces were used as a youth center so that our youth had something constructive to do and a safe place to go? I think the Mayor is intentionally pitting one group against another. How about the Mayor finally make a comment on the loss of life and destruction of families caused in this city by drugs? How about he make the city welcoming and safe for the disabled?

  16. Judge Dredd says:

    Artists are parasites. They do nothing all day and they want to be paid and to be given more resources! Guess what, punks? Come get them!

  17. Uncle Rocco says:

    There’s a young lady down the street from me that makes beautiful sculptures out of leftover wood. And I recently met a young man who makes paintings like they do in Central America. I liked them. These are really nice folks. And they’re not freeloading anything. They make very interesting things in their spare time. It might not be your cup of tea, but so what?

    Some of you guys just came unhinged. I don’t think that artists deserve any special rent treatments any more than other groups. But jumping on people who are really good folks and do a lot of talented things like every single one of them is lazy dirtbag is way out of line.

  18. Villenous says:

    Artists have done more for Somerville than the whiners in this comments section. Guess what? All the artists leave Somerville and this city would be dreary (again). All of you leave Somerville and no one will shed a tear. You’re the parasites. You’re the ones doing nothing while other people make this an actual better place to live.

  19. M.Ro says:

    Did you yahoos even read the article? They’re not talking about affordable housing for artists– they’re asking for developers to build art spaces when they put in new buildings.

  20. can James read? says:

    James, you’re asking why it has to be either or. That’s exactly why people are complaining because it IS either or. It’s never both. There’s no concern for any other population. You see here people talking about social workers, youth workers, etc. You ask why the city can’t support artists and others, I don’t know, but they don’t. Artists are receiving help with housing and studio space, while the others we’re mentioning get nothing. Disabled people can’t go to 90% of city’s recreation activities according to a study. So why does nobody care about dedicating some space to that? HUH????/

  21. important to society? says:

    yes, art is important to society. so is youth employment, recreation for all, affordable day care, substance abuse prevention, veterans, social services, libraries, I could go on and on. Artists seems to think they hold the only place of importance in our community. They are so, so, wrong

  22. PixiePocahontas says:


    Someone please read the fine print — will there be a big tax break for the developers?

    One artist spoke up at a community meeting asking if they can have the 12 year abandoned no taxes Powderhouse School for an artist colony. The room went silent with unspoken resentment. There was a developer present when none were invited, residents only. What a freakin circus this place is turning out to be.

    Art is important only if the artist is willing to support their own work and pay rent/mortgage like the rest of us. I agree, there are building resentments throughout our city and getting worse now that home values are once again artificially inflated. It’s the next roller coaster ride, more casino gambling, when to buy, when to dump and run. It’s only shared with those who create the condo frenzy and benefit while others struggle to learn the game so they don’t sell early or too late, worse when they can lose their home for waiting too long.

    We should just keep going to meetings and present practical solutions while debating the ridiculous suggestions presented.

  23. Yes, and... says:

    To be clear, all of these important social needs are funded in some way, shape, or form through public money: youth employment, recreation/parks, subsidized day care, substance abuse prevention, veterans, social workers, libraries, etc. I think modest support for the work of artists and the value they give back to our community through art, music, dance and innovation is a wise investment. Art makes a community vibrant. Vibrant communities grow. Growing communities bring development and new tax revenues to support good schools, subsidized housing, rec programs, etc, etc. It’s not a zero sum game. Stop hating on good people.

  24. U R so wrong says:

    yes, and.–so wrong. did you read some of the above? 90% of city activities/services not available to the disabled? enough with the vibrant community stuff. It’s not vibrant to many of us. I’m not going to list again all the people who are shut out right now, you’re clearly not listening. Why can’t one of these places be dedicated to recreation and programming for people with disabilities and medical issues? For Recreation/Community events our vibrant community has: Teen Center, Kennedy Pool, YMCA, Peabody House, Trum & Dilboy Fields, Recreation Building, Numerous parks, 2 Nave galleries, Teen Empowerment, Scat ALL INACCESSIBLE to anyone with a disability. And when space is available it goes to artists? Artists are served very well here, it’s time for someone else to benefit

  25. yes, and NO says:

    Modest Support? handing over valuable properties when our property taxes have skyrocketed? What type of bubble do you live in? Artists have gotten so much, it’s time to support the struggling middle-class homeowner. Enough with this Artist Welfare.

  26. PixiePocahontas says:

    Those who own the properties where artists reside are paid handsomely by grant money, developers get tax right off’s while making billions and driving out elders and working class. This is disgraceful. Let’s interview these so called starving artists benefiting from handouts.

    We have no community centers for our youth or elders. Every time the suggestion was made for the PHCS area, the city hall representatives just ignore us. The developers are running this town and there are many behind the scenes benefitting from this sham.

    Do whatever you can to keep your properties and call your representatives. They want everyone to give up and walk away, that makes it easy for these vultures and predators.

    And they complain about immigration and people who struggle with addiction. Life gets people addicted to escape these atrocities of impoverishment through no fault of their own. Until you walk in the shoes of those dealing with homelessness, layoffs, lost homes, lost pensions, savings, sanity, with the shady developers nipping away, it’s impossible to live a quality lifestyle knowing at any moment they will be coming after your home and rental space.

    We must find ways to push back. In the words of my hero William Worthy, (God rest his soul), paraphrasing, “the vulnerable can win if the band together, but they haven’t been given the tools only the powerful elite have access to….”.

    The BOA work for us, so do the reps, senate, congress. Let them know how these policies are negatively impacting your lives. It’s better to have tried than not.

  27. ritepride says:

    Artists have brought development/tax revenues to the community? Where? When?

  28. Yes, and... says:

    The City received $415k from a national arts organization to convert the site of the former waste transfer station into a center for art-based social, economic and educational innovation. I agree that this MUST be open and accessible to all. I also agree that budgets and grants should be pursued for ADA accessibility at all of the places listed including the rec center, YMCA, parks, etc. Somerville has long neglected accessibily for all. But that doesn’t mean we should turn down this grant.

  29. Uncle Rocco says:

    “The BOA work for us, so do the reps, senate, congress.”


  30. Yahoo Can Read! says:

    but M.Ro can’t. it says “live/work spaces” before you call out my reading skills, check your own. and to some others, what you’re hearing is the resentment built up over the years of artists getting all kinds of funding and consideration. Too many others are waiting for similar breaks. Enough

  31. PixiePocahontas says:


    Due diligence on some of these starving artists may reveal they are not truly starved, but use to some other entity bailing them out.

    Our kids and elderly have gone without community centers for decades. The only social activities which demands constant pacification is for the gentrified crowd who probably never got attention at home, now they look to the residents and taxpayers of our tax burdened city for free handouts. Are they unqualified to work real jobs?

    They should be forced to sell their artwork to pay rent and donate the rest to community service and centers so the kids and elderly can benefit. I’ve had enough of the narcissists in this town who think they are the only people who matter most. They matter least of all because of their continuous demands and obnoxious behavior. Call dad and ask for another loan- problem solved.

  32. parking breaks too says:

    everytime I read this I see something new–Artsies opening shop there would enjoy “relaxed parking regulations”. so the schmuck who owns a pizza place on Somerville Ave, Highland Ave, Medford St., has to fight the parking regs to keep his customers coming, but of course, the sacred artists get a break that nobody else gets. Unbelievable.

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