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Citing Public Safety Risk, Somerville Building Commissioner & Fire Chief Order Closure of City’s 90-92 Union Square Building

Nonprofit Tenants Notified in April of August 31 Closure, Recent Findings Underscore Safety Concerns; Both Nonprofits Offered City Support to Assist with Relocation

The Somerville Building Commissioner, in consultation with the Somerville Fire Chief, has ordered that the City’s 90-92 Union Square building close to the public on August 31 due to a public safety risk. In 2019, City and independent inspectors determined that the building, which dates to the late 1880s, needed significant structural repair. Emergency repairs were made at the time, but the assessments found that a complete gut renovation is required for full and lasting building repair. In early April, the City gave final notice to both tenants, two Somerville nonprofits, to close operations by the end of August to protect the public as well as the organizations' staff, clients, and members. The City has voluntarily provided and offered both nonprofits a range of relocation support.

“The stability of the building is being affected by water infiltration due to precipitation. As the severe weather season intensifies, extreme weather poses additional threats to the load capacities of the building. It was determined that August 31, 2023, was the latest possible date for a safe exit of occupants,” said Building Commissioner Nick Antanavica, noting that it is especially important to clear and secure the building before the potential for snow.

Both nonprofit tenants, the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS) and the Somerville Media Center (SMC), have occupied the building for decades at highly subsidized rates. The two organizations were first alerted to the need to vacate in the fall of 2019. Covid-19 disruptions then kept the public out of the building during the peak of the pandemic. This decreased use of the space, as well as temporary repairs, enabled the City to safely grant multiple occupancy extensions to both organizations to afford them more time to search for new locations.

In April 2023, however, an extension beyond August 31 was deemed to be unsafe. An independent structural engineering review this spring by CambridgeSeven, Associates, Inc., reinforced this assessment. Once the Building Commissioner and Fire Chief have closed a building for safety reasons, only they have the authority to reopen it once the required safety measures have been taken.

“The vacating of a building can be seen as a drastic step, but it is sometimes necessary to preserve life safety,” said Antanavica. “We can’t predict when a failure will happen. We can only use our best judgment using the information available to us to make the best decision to ensure the safety of the public. While working in another town, I had to make an unpopular decision to order the closure of an unsound structure that housed youth programs serving more than 100 kids per day. Then the structure collapsed due to snow load several months after the closure. Fortunately, because it was empty, no one was hurt or fatally injured.”

The two nonprofits were informed in the summer of 2022 that it was not reasonable to expect the temporary repairs to hold much longer, and that it was time to work toward the building’s closure for everyone’s safety. They were then given 5-months’ notice on April 5, 2023, of the need to close operations by August 31. Staff members will have supervised access through September for storage and to move their offices. The City will then complete efforts already underway to secure the building including the construction of scaffolding to help protect the public from a potential fall risk for elements on the exterior of the building.

Both the former Curtatone administration and the Ballantyne administration have voluntarily offered a range of supports to both organizations over the past three-and-a-half years. In addition to location search support offered by the City’s Economic Development Division, the City found ways to offer financial assistance to both, despite having no legal obligation to do so.

“No one wanted for these two valued nonprofits to face this kind of disruption, which is why we’ve offered financial support and all the extensions we safely could. Our duty here is to first protect safety, and our goal for both of these organizations is not just to offer aid with a transition but to provide the support and resources they need to thrive,” said Mayor Katjana Ballantyne.

Ballantyne’s administration awarded MAPS $103,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to support the move of their offices within Somerville. This includes funding that may be used to find, rent, and renovate a new location, moving and early rental fees, as well as retrofitting the space for their needs, specifically their health services. MAPS also operates out of their headquarters in Inman Square near the Cambridge-Somerville line.

The City also proffered a proposal to SMC that would boost their usual three-year City grant agreement by more than a projected $1 million, more than doubling the City’s contribution compared to their last City grant. As SMC looks to move their larger offices and media production facilities to a new location that they have already identified in Somerville, this would bring SMC’s City grant funding to a projected $2.1 million over three years (2023-2025) with a portion still subject to annual City Council appropriation in years two and three. Negotiations remain active.

The difference in support level for each nonprofit is due to the nature of the facilities each organization needs to relocate as well as the availability of different funding sources for each. Under state law, the City cannot simply provide general funds from tax revenue to nonprofits to support their independent fixed costs such as operations or rent, so other funding sources were needed. MAPS was eligible for ARPA federal funds. As the City’s designated Public Access television provider, SMC is eligible to receive fixed cost funding from Cable franchise fees collected by the City.

Future of the Building

The former firehouse is one of many buildings in the City that require renovation. Major investment is also currently needed for schools including the Winter Hill and the Brown schools, the City’s active fire houses, and other vital infrastructure. The City does not have the current fiscal capacity to prioritize the projected $7 million to $10 million renovation of 90-92 Union Square before these other significant and pressing needs. The City is, however, committed to developing a plan for its future. Mayor Ballantyne has made it clear that community input must help shape future plans for the building.

“Right now, we are focused on continuing to assist these two important organizations in their transition to new locations, but I also want the community to understand the broader tremendous infrastructure needs in our city,” said Ballantyne. “Somerville is an older city with deteriorating older structures. That’s why from day one, I've focused the City on strategic planning to address our top infrastructure and building needs. That includes planning to renovate our school buildings and fire stations, upgrading our sewer services, improving our roadways, and more. We are finally in a financial position to start addressing the backlog of repairs so that we can fully benefit from these resources that serve our community, and we must do so strategically and deliberately.”

Seeking to explore a viable way to move up the renovation date of the 90-92 Union Square building, the former Curtatone administration put out a call for renovation proposals funded by outside sources. In 2021, they received one from the nonprofit Fab Foundation in partnership with US2, the Union Square master developer. The proposal involved fully renovating the building to the ADA’s accessibility standards. The building would have become Fab Foundation’s nonprofit global headquarters makerspace with workshops, trainings, public hours, and a makers’ café with space for larger events hosted by Fab Foundation and other nonprofits. The renovation would have been financed by US2, as a portion of the more than 70,000 square feet of Arts and Creative Enterprise space due to be built as part of their Union Square Master Plan.

To allow the current nonprofit occupants to stay in the building as long as was safe, neither the Curtatone nor the Ballantyne administration acted on the Fab Foundation-US2 proposal. Renovation of the building while fully occupied was deemed unfeasible by City engineering and legal staff. As an old fire station, the second floor is suspended from the roof, complicating any repair efforts. The major repairs needed for the roof, clock tower, and masonry would also trigger federal ADA requirements for additional renovations, including the installation of an elevator. The range of repairs combined would necessitate a full gut rehab and renovation.

Recent Building Assessment Findings

The CambridgeSeven report on 90-92 Union Square is available at, and below are some critical notes it contains:

“Each rain or snow event allows more water to enter and to further deteriorate the structural roof framing. The longer repairs are delayed, the greater amount of repair and replacement of structural members will be required and the greater risk for failure of major structural elements supporting both the roof and the second floor. We do not recommend any “no-build alternative” or additional delay to address the water infiltration issues.”

“Perimeter eaves and flashing of the high roof, the perimeter of the low roof and through multiple breaches of the clock/watch tower continues to be a major threat to the structural integrity of the building structure. Until the existing roofing systems are repaired, and the clock/watch tower is either properly restored, rebuilt, or demolished, water infiltration will continue and will continue to deteriorate the brick masonry and timber structural elements of the building.”

“Again, at the clock tower, we do not recommend any “no-build alternative” or additional delay to address the serious structural defects, resulting from ongoing and persistent water infiltration, that are destroying the clock tower. We believe a decision to rebuild or demolish the clocktower down to the adjacent sloping roof level should be the first order of business. A one-year time-frame is recommended for these repairs to be completed.”

“Overall, the exterior masonry façade is in fair-to-poor condition with various sections of deteriorated or failed mortar joints, cracked or spalled brick masonry units, abandoned mechanical anchors, failed and/or missing sealant joints, and areas of shifted masonry. Several of these locations may be a life safety concern for occupants and pedestrians walking around the building.”

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