By Maile Blume
As Somerville takes steps to establish more affordable housing, one community created for makers is facing some challenges.
The Brickbottom Artists Building has provided the space for creatives to live and work together since 1988; however, the influx of development in the Brickbottom area is raising some questions among the community about the changing landscape of the neighborhood.
“It’s nice to have a mix of people who are in general creative,” said print media artist Melinda Cross. “There’s sculpture artists, there’s a startup that’s renting a space, there’s people who appreciate art, which is very necessary,” she added.
But as market prices for condos in the Brickbottom building are increasing, some residents are concerned about the future of the makers community.
“Are the people who are moving in people who can afford the apartment, and also creative, and want to contribute to the community?” asked Cross. “Or do we have people moving in who would like to change it and see it as an investment property because of all the development and all these labs and things going up?”
Contributing to the concern is construction of the MBTA East Somerville Station, which opened in December 2022. Since then, the new station and expanse of undeveloped areas have attracted even more developers to the neighborhood. In response, the city has been creating the Brickbottom Small Area Plan.
The public draft of the plan calls for areas that were labeled as “transitional” by the city — such as Brickbottom — “to become regional employment centers that offer a wide range of high-quality jobs.” The plan also says that these areas “can also help us achieve critical housing goals by increasing our high-density housing stock near mass transit, which allows us to address our housing shortage without worsening car traffic.”
“As the community’s vision for development of Brickbottom begins to be put into action, the city’s goal is to help find a balance between responsible development and ensuring that the neighborhood continues to be a vibrant hub of creativity and expression,” said Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne about the plan. “While this project inevitably will bring some changes to the neighborhood, we are committed to working with all stakeholders to create strategies that address the risk of artist displacement,” she added.
“It’s a priority for me as Somerville’s mayor to be sure we are striving to tackle displacement of residents and small businesses head-on,” she said. “Our anti-displacement strategies include creating more affordable housing opportunities, changing our planning and zoning requirements to create more artist spaces, and providing grants to help small businesses. It is vital that we ensure that the people and places who make us who we are cannot only stay here, but also continue to thrive and grow and that includes the vibrant artist community in Brickbottom.”
Envisioning the future As developers have come to the Brickbottom area, they have sought out community input for their building plans. “We always ask for green space, and we asked for buildings that aren’t too tall,” said resident and artist Chris Mesarch, who was traditionally trained in Japanese fan-making, and now paints and is writing a graphic novel. “We are very protective of the light. And we also have the fact that the area can’t handle the influx of people that would be brought by bigger buildings.”
As the development continues, the Brickbottom community is facing questions about its long- term impact. “I always think of the longer picture, the bigger picture, the development in terms of the environmental calamity the world is in,” said Mesarch. The current development plan includes no green space, she said. “The landscaping is pavement with trees coming up through the holes.”
Some of the Brickbottom residents also expressed concerns that traffic may worsen in the area. “We’re going to suffer the constant consequences because we don’t have enough appropriate infrastructure for a really large building where people are going to be coming to work,” said resident and artist Charlotte Kaplan, who creates sculptures through a political lens.
Some development companies have been more responsive to the feedback of the Brickbottom community than others. Resident and artist Kim Schmahmann, who creates multidimensional, large-scale art out of engraved wood, said that the development company North River Company LLC, for example, has planned a building that is “very contextual with the neighborhood.” Schmahmann added that the architect and developers have been continually asking the community for feedback, and taking this into account in their design and building processes.
“We don’t want buildings that are not contextual,” said Schmahmann. “We are a five-story building, and some of the proposed new buildings around us are out of scale with the existing neighborhood.”
The ongoing construction in the area has also brought noise pollution to the community. “When the green line was being built, it was horrible. It was noisy, it was dusty. But it was public transportation,” said Kaplan. “So a lot of us thought, public transportation — that’s a good thing, we should be in favor of it. We can put up with this for a while.”
However, the construction continued with other development projects coming to the area. Cross said that she often wakes up to the sound of cranes backing up, or the sound of a hammer. “Living with the constant noise has been difficult, but if it wasn’t this it would be something else,” she said.
Residents said that they hope the Brickbottom community will continue to live on. In addition to creating a close-knit community, the Brickbottom Artists Building also offers the opportunity for community members to age in place. “As a single person and an aging person, I’m very grateful for the community,” said Mesarch. “And as an artist, it’s wonderful to be living with others. I can go out of my door every day and encounter people and work with the community.”
“The Brickbottom Artist Building is a strong, creative community,” said Schmahmann. “It would be very sad if this community did not survive the development of the neighborhood.”