Can Weston do better than selling the Old Library and Josiah Smith Tavern for $22,000 to a commercial real estate developer, who would also get $4.1 million in a “community preservation” grant of taxpayer funds as part of this deal? Wait, it gets worse: the sorrier aspect of this transaction is Urbanica’s plan to convert the Old Library into privately owned luxury residential condos and the Tavern mostly into commercial space for businesses prone to high failure rates, such as a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast inn.
So what would be better? Discussions around town have been raising interest in more community oriented uses of these landmark buildings, which would add to the cultural and civic vitality of the town’s center. Is this a fantasy as some town officials insinuate? We need only look nearby at Maynard’s ArtSpace to see otherwise with one alternative that is both inspiring and feasible at a far lower cost to taxpayers than the Urbanica proposition.
ArtSpace occupies former school buildings near Maynard’s center at 63 Summer Street. With total space that is about the size of Weston’s old Field School, ArtSpace also rents studio space to about 80 local artists and a theater workshop. In addition to ArtSpace’s Gallery, the artists’ studios were open to the public the last weekend in September. This free admission open house event was well attended.
The range of the artists’ creations is broad—from portrait paintings, landscape paintings, and sculptures including some made of recycled materials like pencil stubs and yogurt containers to crafts like pottery and exotic hats for ladies. Nearly all of the artists were on hand, happy to chat about their work and techniques as well offer munchies to visitors. A visitor would be hard pressed to find a more congenial and interesting way to spend an afternoon than touring this lively museum.
ArtSpace is following up this successful open house by launching regular open house events on the second Saturday of every month starting on October 12. Visiting hours will be from 4pm to 6pm. Admission will remain free. On October 12, there will also be an opening reception from 5pm to 7pm in the ArtSpaceGallery for an exhibit of oil paintings by Jill Pottle. The telephone number at ArtSpace is (978) 897-9828 and its website is www.artspacemaynard.com.
ArtSpace was founded a dozen years ago by its director, Jero Nesson, who had previously managed a state government program to encourage innovative reuses of surplus municipal buildings. Other than a nominal annual fee paid to the Town of Maynard, ArtSpace gets no further financial consideration from the Town nor receives any other outside financial support. As Nesson explains, the key financial formula is simply ArtSpace’s total operating costs divided by rentable square footage. That works out to about $8.00 per square foot paid by the tenant artists.
That low rent appears affordable for artists because ArtSpace is fully occupied and there is a lengthy waiting list. ArtSpace has also funded its own leasehold improvements, including a new boiler and simple but pleasant common areas. As you might expect, artists have furnished their own studios in a variety of colorful and funky ways.
Nesson is acquainted with the potential of Weston’s Old Library for a similar reuse. After the opening of our new library, Weston resident and artist Susan Smick arranged for him to visit the Old Library and suggest to the Town a plan to convert the building into an art center. That suggestion was set aside in favor of the “temporary” reuse of the building for town offices while the Town Hall was rehabilitated. Obviously there was no follow-up once the Town Hall project was completed.
As Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again. This is not to say that an art center is the only alternative to the Urbanica proposal for the Old Library as well as the Tavern. Indeed, other residents are attracted to other reuse ideas like a history center or affordable housing. If nothing else then, it should be apparent that a new Request for Proposals (RFP) with a level playing field for all proposals is needed so that a range of alternatives can be fairly and properly considered by Weston residents.