Cambridge commits more than $45 million to a sleek new community arts space

It’s not every day a city forks over $45.5 million to transform an old industrial building into a gleaming new community arts center. But that’s more or less what the city of Cambridge has done with The Foundry, a makerspace near Kendall Square that opened last month.

The opening celebration took place on a sunny fall weekend. A band played “When the Saints Go Marching In” in The Foundry’s sprawling atrium, which stretched three stories up to the skylight on the roof.

At a table by the stairs, Lloyd Williams was selling his paintings, vivid interpretations of familiar Boston scenes: Bolling’s Municipal Building in Nubian Square, the swan boats in the Public Garden. Williams was excited to be inside the newly renovated building with its exposed brick walls and tall windows. He hoped it could fill the void left by art galleries forced to close due to the pandemic.

“That’s what artists need: they need a space to show their art,” he said. “After the pandemic, the only place I could sell my art was on the street.”

The front lobby of The Foundry in Cambridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With The Foundry, Williams saw an opportunity to bring his art inside. The 50,000-square-foot former steam pump factory features gallery space, a black-box theater, dance studio, metal and fiber workshops, kitchen, art studios, conference rooms, and more—all available for public use. Williams was pretty sure he qualified to use the gallery space for free, thanks to The Foundry’s rental model.

This shiny new facility was anything but a foregone conclusion. The story begins back in 2009 when Alexandria Real Estate Equities, the company that owns The Foundry, agreed to give it to the city in exchange for rezoning approval that would allow the company to develop in Kendall Square. It was another three years before the property was transferred, and only then did the process of figuring out what to do with the building begin.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, which owns 50annual rent of The Foundry, was tasked with developing the use of the space. In 2013 and 2014, the CRA held public forums to refine the community vision. Many ideas were proposed, from youth programs to workforce training to child care. There was a strong showing from arts supporters who were alarmed by the displacement of dance and art studios due to development and rising property values. So a plan was hatched to turn The Foundry into a community center with a significant arts component.

The Fiber Arts Room (left) and Dance Studio (right) at The Foundry.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Fiber Arts Room (left) and Dance Studio (right) at The Foundry. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The CRA initially selected a developer to undertake the costs of renovating and operating the building. But soon there were concerns that a private entrepreneur looking to recoup its investment would be too focused on profit.

“The concern was that market forces and market interest would always drive down the cost of community use,” said CRA Executive Director Tom Evans.

So the city pivoted — hard — and decided to take on the historic landmark’s renovation itself. The foundry was built in 1890 and was originally used for working iron; it enjoyed a short life as a taxi barn before being converted into offices in 1982. By 2000, the structure had fallen into disrepair and would require significant improvements to meet modern building codes.

Ultimately, the elegant adaptive reuse design by architectural firm CambridgeSeven cost $45.5 million, with $35 million provided by the city and $10.5 million by the CRA.

“It’s a huge investment,” Evans said. “The reason we’ve been able to make this kind of investment is because of Kendall Square and the economic vitality of Cambridge.”

The hope is that The Foundry will help offset the losses incurred by relentless economic growth. Since the acquisition of the building, a number of arts spaces in Cambridge have closed, including Out of the Blue Too Gallery, artist space EMF and Green Street Studio. The foundry could serve as a model for other cities trying to mitigate this trend.

The woodworking shop at The Foundry.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The woodworking shop at The Foundry. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s one thing to build a space for the public – but will the public use it? Will it reach the people you intend to reach?

In many ways, the hard part has just begun.

“The project itself is a major prototype,” said Diana Navarrete-Rakaukas, executive director of The Foundry Consortium, the nonprofit organization that runs the Foundry. “One of the main missions of The Foundry building is to really address the disparities in space and equipment that come with being a manufacturer in the area. And so, because of that, our core constituents are people who don’t have access to space and equipment like that.

Hence the sliding scale rental scheme. The Foundry will not require individuals or organizations to provide documentation of their eligibility. “It’s a very conscious decision,” Navarrete-Rakaukas said. “We really believe in the importance of building trust in the community, and this is a space that’s really designed to work on the basis of equity.”

The space is also available at a commercial cost, although community use is assumed to be a priority. After all, the whole reason the city took on the project was to prevent a corporate takeover. “Anything more than 20% used for these commercial purposes … will feel like we’re failing as an organization,” Navarrete-Rakaukas said.

Because of its proximity to Kendall Square, The Foundry brands itself as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) facility—that is, a place where art and technology mix. Along with metalworking equipment and dance lessons, you’ll find 3D printers and a lecture series on the intersection of art and science.

It’s a more natural marriage than you might think, said Foundry board member Joyce Chen. “The iPhone you’re holding was designed by a designer with a background in art,” she pointed out. “The problems we’re going to have to solve in the future are going to have to be interdisciplinary and really require collaboration between all these different groups.”

The Food Lab at The Foundry in Cambridge.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Food Lab at The Foundry in Cambridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Foundry aims to cast a wide net for use by hobbyists, professionals, small businesses, corporations and non-profits. But a space that tries to be all things to all people may not be focused enough to deliver on some of its promises. For example, many artists hoped The Foundry would provide desperately needed studio space.

“You could put a hundred studios in here, you know, and rent them out to local artists,” said Cambridge resident Michael Shea, who submitted a proposal along those lines. Instead, The Foundry has eight reserved workspaces in a large open room.

“I don’t think it will meet that criteria [artists] they should be usable,” he said.

Shea, who serves on the foundry’s Advisory Committee, was more optimistic about other creative uses the building could facilitate. “I think as a teaching space it would work and maybe as a gallery space it could work,” he said. “The black box theater is phenomenal. I think it’s the only shining star in that spot right now because it’s going to get a lot of use.”

And then there’s the money problem. Most of the building’s significant operating costs are met by leasing office space upstairs. But Chen said The Foundry Consortium still needs help funding its annual budget of about $500,000.

“Yes, the building has money to support itself, to keep the lights on,” Chen said. “But can we actually keep this building full of life?”

The Black Box Theater at The Foundry.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Black Box Theater at The Foundry. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The building was definitely buzzing on opening day. The strains of bachata and salsa music filtered from a dance class in the black box theater as people lined up for a free lunch in a line snaking down the patio outside. The atrium hummed with excited chatter.

Nine-year-old Magnus Lynes, who came to the celebration with his mother and brother, stopped briefly to offer his assessment of the space. After some consideration, he gave The Foundry 4.5 out of 5 stars “because it’s pretty big and has a lot of scenery.”

This is just one person’s opinion of The Foundry. Over time, a bigger picture will emerge as The Foundry Consortium collects data – on how much the space is being used, for what purposes and by whom – in an attempt to get a true measure of Cambridge’s big bet.

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