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

SOMERVILLE—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 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 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 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, 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 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 summer 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-month’s 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 construction of scaffolding to help protect the public from 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 for 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.

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