Saga Of Boston Music Studio Space A Symbol Of Pressure Lab Expansion Puts On Neighborhoods
Boston’s Sound Museum, a rehearsal space for bands and a longtime incubator of the city’s music scene, has hosted local bands and drop-ins from legends like B.B. King and David Bowie.
Soon, the space at 155 North Beacon St. will be an incubator of a different type, as it is slated to become a lab building. It was shuttered at the end of February after a biotech firm that bought the space in 2021 announced plans to demolish and build ground-up lab space.
It is one of many such operations struggling in the face of increased development. Nearby music club Great Scott closed in 2020, a signal of the end of a region dubbed Allston Rock City.
When the Sound Museum first opened in the early 1980s in the city’s South End, run by Katherine Desmond and her husband, Bill “Des” Desmond, it wasn’t facing the pressure of expanding labs and a startup scene that would turn the Boston region into the nation’s center of life sciences.
But over the next few decades, the operation would hopscotch between multiple facilities and neighborhoods, including Cambridge. These areas, like Kenmore Square and Somerville, have become centers of lab space development.
In the unique saga of the Sound Museum, numerous threads of Boston real estate, culture and development come together. San Diego-based developer IQHQ’s $50M purchase of the 150K SF warehouse building that housed the studio rental company was the catalyst for the unfolding drama.
The project and its fallout are representative of the strain biotech’s expansion can place on these types of industrial properties, which in past decades have been home to tenants in creative industries pushed aside by urban growth and the expansion of industries like next-day logistics and labs. There is 17M SF of lab space under construction in Greater Boston, per CBRE.
“Everyone is competing for the same space, and labs have a gazillion times more money,” said Ami Bennitt, co-founder of the Art Stays Here Coalition, a volunteer artists advocacy organization.
She said the issue is more than rising property values and gentrification, which puts pressure on cost-sensitive artists and arts organizations.
“Arts are hanging by a thread as it is. It’s not life sciences' fault — they’re just doing business,” she said. “The real issue is why aren’t there protections and policies for arts, music and cultural spaces?”
The Art Stays Here Coalition has helped secure temporary practice space for musicians after the Sound Museum shut down earlier this year, moving more than 500 artists to so-called swing space at a former radio station studio at 55 Morrissey Blvd.
The city of Boston helped facilitate the purchase of a new long-term home for the musicians, gifted by IQHQ. Boston Chief of Arts and Culture Kara Elliott-Ortega told WBUR it was the first time the city had worked with developers in this manner.
It is also a saga where the developer has been lauded as a supporter of arts and culture. As part of what is called the Article 80 process to mitigate the community impact of the project, IQHQ spent $18M to purchase a 35K SF building at 290 North Beacon St., less than half a mile from the original location, which it offered to donate to the city. Art Stays Here will advocate for the development of this new location to include as much music rehearsal space as possible, even if it costs more money or takes longer. It’s a “unicorn” to be able to create so much long-term artist space in one go, Bennitt said.
“We understood from the beginning that this was an extraordinary situation that required a collaborative solution,” IQHQ Chief Development Officer John Bonanno said in a statement. “By purchasing another building nearby and gifting it to the City, we preserved a big piece of the music and arts scene in the neighborhood, and allowed a valuable development to move forward.”
The process has drawn the ire of the Desmonds, who say they were pushed out of control of the temporary location and fear they will be locked out of the new space and the business they have operated for decades. They point to initial statements made in support of keeping the Desmonds, who were leasing space at 155 North Beacon St., at the helm of any new location. A letter from the Office of Arts and Culture to IQHQ said it was “encouraged by the proponent’s commitment to working with the Sound Museum to secure a future home for the organization and its tenants.” And Elliott-Ortega at one point called the Sound Museum an “anchor institution” and a “valuable cultural asset.”
“It was a cover-up to steal my business,” said Katherine Desmond, who blamed the city and Art Stays Here.
The selection process for running the temporary practice space was run by the Art Stays Here Coalition, which has led campaigns seeking to preserve different arts and cultural spaces against encroaching development in recent years, including helping tenants at the Humphreys Street Studios in Dorchester raise funding to purchase majority control of their space and assisting with relocation from studio dwellers at 119 Braintree St., also in Allston, which is being turned into a mixed-use lab development.
Art Stays Here evaluated a number of potential operators for the temporary Sound Museum space and ultimately chose the nonprofit Record Co. That struck the Desmonds and their supporters as biased and unfair. Record Co. counts Elliott-Ortega’s boyfriend, Matt McArthur, as its executive director and doesn’t have as much experience operating recording studios. Scott Matalon, a longtime Sound Museum tenant, told WBUR that he felt the city’s plan was basically “stealing the Sound Museum business and giving it to someone else.”
Bennitt told Bisnow the private selection process, which pitted four competitors against each other, included a nonprofit consultant hired to create the scoring rubric and the application review committee included a number of stakeholders, including former Sound Museum tenants. Record Co. had financial pro formas, references, an operating plan, a large staff and access to funds, she said, which ultimately helped it score the highest.
“[The Desmonds] embarked on a smear campaign against me,” Bennitt said. “But they didn’t lose their business because I took it or someone else took it.”
The city is “negotiating a purchase and sale agreement for the 290 N. Beacon property,” according to an email from Rebecca Hansen, the city’s director of real estate. As city planners finalize the deal, the entire process lays bare the challenges in funding artist space in areas of rapidly rising commercial interest.
“Activity has been prevalent in neighborhoods like the Seaport, South End, Allston-Brighton and Charlestown,” Newmark Head of National Life Science Research Elizabeth Berthelette said. “While developers have begun to propose more life science components to these development projects, historically, we’ve seen adaptive reuse and redevelopment into office, multifamily, retail and other uses. I don’t believe this is a truly life science-driven trend in Boston but a decades-long shift in commercial uses within the city.”
Desmond said that with buildings in Allston-Brighton going for $40 to $60 per SF and artists typically able to cover rent close to $8 to $10 per SF, which was what the Desmonds were paying, there is a significant gulf that requires subsidies and funding.
“I honestly don't understand why they went through all the trouble to steal my business when it really isn't a huge moneymaker,” Desmond said. “The reason why we've always been in these funky old buildings is because we can't afford expensive buildings. And most landlords didn’t want to accommodate a bunch of musicians.”
Desmond, who said her family has been hurt financially by losing their tenants and formed a nonprofit that seeks to compete for the opportunity to run the future music rehearsal space, said less than 16% of the tenants who rented at Sound Museum lived in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood. The majority of them live in the suburbs or surrounding areas because they can’t afford to live in the city.
Arts advocates have pointed to the challenges of piecemeal planning for the preservation of art spaces, and local planning agencies have begun to collaborate more closely. But ultimately, more funding and coordination are needed to maintain these local institutions in the face of expanding development, as well as affordable housing projects that include arts space. Bennitt said that areas such as Charlestown and industrial areas on the outskirts of cities in Greater Boston have the kinds of industrial buildings that could both be arts venues or lab space.
“If cities and communities don’t support protections and policies for artists and musicians and cultural space, you’re by default saying it’s not important and causing it to go away,” she said. “Inaction is action.”
CORRECTION, SEPT. 26, 11 A.M. ET: This story has been updated to remove a portion of a quote from Katherine Desmond.