Easthampton council backs One Cottage Street artists in rent flap

The Easthampton City Council on Wednesday approved a resolution affirming the city’s commitment to affordable artist work spaces in response to a rent dispute between Riverside Industries at One Cottage Street at the artists who rent space there.

The Easthampton City Council on Wednesday approved a resolution affirming the city’s commitment to affordable artist work spaces in response to a rent dispute between Riverside Industries at One Cottage Street at the artists who rent space there. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about nonprofit’s One Cottage Street building this spring.

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about nonprofit’s One Cottage Street building this spring. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ALEXA LEWIS

Staff Writer

Published: 06-26-2024 4:43 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A galvanized arts community worried about looming rent hikes for artists who rent space at Cottage Street Studios downtown secured the backing of the City Council on Wednesday.

At an emotional meeting featuring crying and shouting, the council unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution affirming the city’s commitment to affordable artist work spaces. Councilors made the decision after hearing accounts from artists navigating the rent dispute and from representatives from the building’s owner, Riverside Industries at One Cottage Street.

“There’s so many things at stake,” artisan Janna Ugone told the council, fighting back tears. “Riverside’s at stake. My company’s at stake.”

Ugone has run her handcrafted lamp business at One Cottage Street since 1987. “There’s a big impact with this decision for all of us.”

Lynn Ireland, president and CEO of Riverside Industries, introduced herself to the council as “the villain in the room,” and used her two minutes of speaking time to emphasize Riverside’s core mission.

“Our mission is empowering people with intellectual and developmental disabilities ... I have to assure that every single dollar spent is in the best and highest use in alignment with our mission,” she said. “It can’t be on the back of these clients to support and subsidize artisans.”

This sentiment was met with calls of dissent from the artists.

Tensions have been rising between a majority of the roughly 100 tenants, most of whom are artists, and their landlords at Riverside since late April, when a blanket increase setting all rates for building space at $15 per square foot was announced. Currently, rents in the building range from $5 to $15 per square foot. For many longtime tenants, some of which have worked out of the space for over 40 years, this increase is jarring and creates a looming threat of displacement.

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Riverside Industries initiated these increases as part of a “strategic planning” process, through which they hope to expand their programs and be better stewards of the building.

The 174,000-square-foot former factory space was awarded to Riverside for $1 in the late 1970s, giving it a space to conduct it programs but also saddling the nonprofit with the burden of maintaining an enormous, aging property.

Some of the biggest infrastructure challenges currently facing the building are the need for a new boiler and fire suppression system, both of which can no longer function as needed due to age. Riverside’s income as a nonprofit has proven to be inadequate to make the needed improvements and expansions to their space and programming, leading to the decision to implement a “rent equalization” for the building’s tenants setting rents at $15 per square foot.

After several failed attempts by the newly formed Cottage Street Tenants Association to call a meeting with Riverside’s board of directors, the tenants came to the City Council seeking help.

While they can’t dictate what Riverside does with its building, councilors were able to consider — and ultimately approve — the resolution put forth by Councilors Koni Denham and Homar Gomez. That measure voiced support for affordable artist work spaces in the city, and recognizes the role of the arts in Easthampton’s distinct culture.

The artists state their case

At Wednesday’s meeting, artists from One Cottage Street flooded the room, standing in support of their peers as they spoke, sometimes tearfully, in favor of the resolution. Most of the artists expressed anxiety over the speed and severity of the rent increases, which are likely to push them out of their studios, they said.

Ellen Koteen, who has run a photography business out of the building for over 18 years, stated that “the staff at Riverside performs heroic work,” but that the artists “want to continue to use our studios to create art.”

“I personally struggle with the lack of transparency from Riverside,” said Margaret Larson, who has been a tenant alongside her husband for over 16 years, operating a woodworking shop and a golf simulator out of the building. Larson emphasized that tenants have yet to see new leases, but have to make decisions about whether to stay by September.

“I’m very sympathetic obviously to Riverside and what they’re doing,” said artist and tenant George Shaw. “But I don’t think that, you know, our interests and their interests are mutually exclusive, which seems to be how its been presented.”

“I don’t want [Riverside] to suffer,” said Evelyn Snyder, who runs a pottery business out of the building. “But I also don’t want to leave the studio I’ve been renting for 30 years because my rent is going up 51%. I’m going to try really hard to stay, and I don’t want it to be us versus them. I want to be able to work with them.”

Burns Maxey, president of CitySpace, also spoke in favor of the resolution on behalf of CitySpace, stating that its board voted unanimously to support it.

“We believe in the economic and creative value of the arts,” Maxey said.

Riverside rebuts

Several representatives of Riverside Industries, including their new property manager and the parent of a program attendee, approached the podium in response, making known the needs underlying the increases.

“It is my duty to exercise fiscal responsibility over every aspect of the programs and the building,” Ireland told the council. “We are one of the largest employers here in the city of Easthampton. We have 140 employees, 98 of which are your constituents… they support the vibrancy and the economy of Easthampton.”

Markus Jones, Riverside’s senior director of development and strategic operations, spoke to the fact that the property at One Cottage Street was a gift to the nonprofit.

“It is our obligation to use that gift as it was intended, which is in support of our mission,” he said. “It is disheartening that some of our One Cottage Street tenants are putting their desire for below-market rent above the needs of Riverside and our clients, one of the most vulnerable populations in our community.”

Jones stated that he believes “these individuals have painted a negative image of Riverside by stating its leaders have acted in harmful or unfair business practices,” and that “these actions are meant to only harm Riverside’s reputation and to pressure its leadership to bend to their own personal desires.”

Melissa Pike, president of Riverside’s Building Committee and chairperson of Riverside’s board, responded to allegations that leadership declined to meet with tenants, saying, “Tenants again have been told that a meeting with the board of directors is inappropriate as the board of directors and the RSI mission do not include the tenants.”

Pike also mentioned that she attended a meeting with tenants Margaret and Greg Larson, Ireland, Jones, and Building Manager Sergio Hernandez in May, during which she gave the Larsons her email address.

“My personal email title and name are then posted on the internet without my permission, and this is violating to me,” Pike stated. “The email campaign has been nothing short of harassment.”

Pike was referring to a series of letters that Cottage Street tenants have been disseminating to community members, media outlets, elected officials and Riverside leadership via email that seek to generate attention and action around the rent increases. The letters vary in exact content, but typically detail the tenants’ history in the building, the importance of arts in the community, and their fears of being priced out of their studios.

Council responds

One Cottage Street tenants waited anxiously through the council meeting’s other items for a vote on the resolution, which took place at the end of the four-hour meeting.

Denham introduced the resolution saying, “I think this resolution that is before us … is an intent to affirm the work and the commitment and the dedication of artists.”

“I just want to state this evening my commitment to work with Riverside and the artists to find a solution that really works for everybody,” Denham said.

Councilor Brad Riley said he took issue with the way that some Riverside representatives framed the dispute, saying that “putting two groups of good people against each other for the gain of an organization” was “incredibly harmful.”

“Is the reason that Riverside Industries felt like they weren’t required to meet with these small business owners halfway because they’re the ones that hold all the power? That’s what it feels like to me, and it doesn’t sit well with me,” Riley said.

“There also felt like a theme tonight of using the vulnerability of people with disabilities to somehow discredit artists, and I just really want to emphasize that to be pro artist is not anti-disability, and to be pro-disability is not anti-artist.”

Gomez also took issue with this rhetoric.

“This is not a disability community against arts,” said Gomez. “The intent of this resolution is not against the disability community.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the resolution, emphasizing their commitment not only to the artists, but to a solution that benefits all parties involved. However, Councilor Thomas Peake lamented the fact that this could only be a symbolic victory.

“I just want to say … how just absolutely sick I am being once again in a situation where there’s a real issue that is really going to affect real people, and the only thing that we can do is do a nonbinding, completely symbolic resolution,” said Peake. “I’m just sick of it.”

Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com.