Humphreys Street artists fearing displacement with sale of property pending

Humphreys Street Studios, with its landmark chimney and mostly green painted buildings, which were once a laundry facility in Dorchester. Robin Lubbock/WBUR photo

A group of 42 artists has reached a precarious point in their quest to save their Boston studios. Renters at the Humphreys Street Studios in Uphams Corner, they fear they will be displaced if an offer on the property is finalized.

The artists had hoped to gain control of the studios through a partnership with two mission-driven developers, New Atlantic and Placetailor, who planned to build out the property’s massive back lot and transfer ownership of the studio building to a nonprofit managed by the artists.

The group submitted a $2.75 million offer in April. They included a contingency that further environmental studies be made on the property since chemicals from an underground oil tank had leached into the soil. But they found out last week that the property’s four co-owners had accepted a cash offer from another buyer, Kendall Capital LLC.

The studios at 11-13 Humphreys Street are some of the last affordable artist studio spaces in Boston, where real estate prices climb relentlessly. The studios’ tenants worried that a new owner would either raise rents or evict them in order to develop the property.

Kendall Capital could not be reached for comment.

“It’s really impossible to find a place like this, where the rent is very affordable, and it’s right in the heart of Boston,” said Franklin Marval, a graphic designer who has rented studio space at Humphreys Street for nine years.

“It’s a business decision,” said James Cooper, one of the owners of the property, of the pending sale. He added that Kendall Capital’s offer was higher than the artists’ (though lower than the asking price of $3.5 million), and didn’t require the owners to spend more money to deal with the site’s contaminated soil.

The Humphreys Street Studios were founded in 2001 by two artists, Joe Wheelwright and Neal Widett. One of the building’s underground heating tanks, a vestige of its former life as a dry-cleaning facility, leaked oil into the ground, making the property difficult to sell or develop for residential use. Wheelwright, a sculptor, and Widett, a wood carver, transformed the building into a collection of cheap, roomy studios especially well-suited to sculptors and craftspeople working with large equipment. Both Wheelwright and Widett passed away in recent years.

Cooper said the property’s other three owners were eager to sell. “If you asked them, ‘Can we close on this tomorrow?’, they would jump through their skin,” he said. Those owners include Wheelwright and Widett’s widows. “When Neal and Joe were alive, [their wives] were very attached to the whole thing. But after they died, it’s sort of … a lingering memory,” Cooper said. “It still hurts.”

The artists’ developer partners submitted a counter offer of $3 million and removed the environmental contingency after learning of the pending sale. Cooper said he would consider the offer a backup if the current deal fell through. Kendall Capital was granted a 60-day due diligence period to examine the property before the sale is finalized.

That 60-day period means the artist-developer partnership still has a chance, said New Atlantic owner Bill Hardy. “Every developer who’s ever looked at this has walked away,” he said. “From my perspective, it just would not be smart for someone [who wanted to earn a profit] to buy the building, given what is known and what is not known about the environmental condition.”

The property, which was appraised at $3.1 million, went on the market more than a year ago, spurring the artists to organize. Perhaps ironically, the existential threat to the studios made its artist tenants more invested than ever. The group voted to create a tenants’ association in March.

“It really was our mission from the beginning … to save our own space in Boston,” said Cristina Todesco, who sits on the Humphreys Street Studios preservation steering committee. “But it became much greater than that as we started to reach out to community members.”

The group recently organized an exhibition showcasing work by the building’s tenants as well as other artists from Dorchester and Roxbury.

“We want to be ingrained in this community,” Todesco said. “We’re looking to grow and build community relationships. And we want to be here.”

This article was published by WBUR 90.9FM on May 13. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.