The One Cottage Street building.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

EASTHAMPTON — Over five dozen artists and creative businesses at Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton are advocating to keep their current workspaces affordable after the building’s landlord, Riverside Industries, announced in April that rents for its tenants will increase come September.

The artists, which formed the Cottage Street Studios Artists Tenants Association, as well as an accompanying steering committee, are concerned that the spike in rents will damage the cultural and community vibrancy that has been cultivated at the One Cottage Street mill building over the last 48 years.

“This would be a doubling of our rent,” said Margaret Larson, co-owner of Cottage Street Woodworking, regarding her 4,000 square-foot space. “We just can’t do that with the amount of space we have.”

In an interview with Reminder Publishing, Larson said that her rent has doubled over the course of 15 years at Cottage Street but it has never doubled all at once like it is about to. She called the proposed flat rates for tenants — which will be $15 per square foot regardless of size, space, tenure in the building or nonprofit status — “simply untenable.”

“They’re calling this an equalization of rents, but these spaces are not equal,” Larson said.

Daniel Kelm, a bookbinder who has had a studio in Cottage Street for 39 years, said he always found rate increases in the past to be acceptable but, with this particular rate increase, he is unsure how he will be able to afford staying in his studio.

His price per square foot for his space is set to increase by about 50% come September.

“It puts me in a big bind,” Kelm said. “This has been my experience; this has been my community, and, now, sometimes I don’t even want to show up because of this experience I’m having.”

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations for Riverside, told Reminder Publishing that Riverside engaged a strategic planning consultant last fall and conducted a new strategic plan to see the impacts of everything that involves Riverside, including the One Cottage Street building.

Through that process, Riverside found that the costs to operate the One Cottage Street building were rising, especially since the coronavirus pandemic, and that the tenant’s rental rates at the current price were not enough to help cover those costs.

“Riverside’s cost to fund the building was growing to the point where it was really not sustainable,” Jones said. “The increase in the cost to operate the building grew while the income that we were receiving from rental units in the building remained basically the same.”

Riverside has owned the Cottage Street building since 1976 when J.P. Stevens donated the 174,000 square-foot building to them for $1. To subsidize the ongoing costs of restoring and maintaining the five story, sprawling mill building, they opened their doors to tenants, and soon after, One Cottage Street became the first mill building in Western Mass. to foster a creative community.

Presently, Riverside rents out the space to about 100 tenants, with around 85 of them being artists.

Through the strategic plan they conducted, Jones said Riverside found that rental rates currently range from $5 per square foot with no increases, to rates that are as high as $12 per square foot for new tenants, with stipulating further increases.

He said these rates were “very inequitable,” and “not sustainable” for Riverside because of the increased costs to operate the building.

He told Reminder Publishing that it costs about $1.1 million each year to operate the building and Riverside takes in around $700,000 in yearly rental income. He said Riverside usually has to make up that difference.
On top of that, Jones said Riverside is also embarking on specific capital projects like updating a fire suppression system and installing a new boiler.

“One of the first initiatives in our strategic plan has been to change our relationship to this building and make it an asset,” Jones said. “For it to continue on the path that we were on with our relationship to the building, it was not operating in that way, and it was actually the thing that eventually could be our detriment. So, we needed to make some changes.”

Larson said the onus to cover those costs should not be on them because the artists are not the ones who caused those increased expenses.

“We understand that Riverside has increasing expenses, but if we weren’t here, they would still have those expenses,” Larson said. “We are not the cause of those expenses.”

Originally, the rents were supposed to increase to $15 per square foot plus a $3 common area maintenance charge to go into effect July 1, but after hearing concerns from tenants, Riverside decided to drop the $3 charge and delay the rent increase until Sept. 1.

Larson said tenants have until Aug. 1 to declare whether they are staying or not, a timetable that she and Kelm argue is still too soon.

“It is not a lot of time for those of us with equipment,” Larson said. “Where do we go? How do we actually do the physical moving? Do we consolidate? We don’t know.”

Riverside’s CEO Lynn Ireland invited tenants to a meeting in late April to lay out the costs and discuss the strategic plan of Riverside, including the rental increases at One Cottage Street.

She also presented a market analysis that was completed by a firm called Hometown Financial Group to get a sense of what rental spaces were going for out in the Pioneer Valley. Jones said they looked at all different buildings in different towns to “somewhat compare” themselves but to also get an understanding of what it would be like to not be on the One Cottage Street building.

According to the April presentation from Ireland, which was provided to Reminder Publishing, Riverside classified One Cottage Street as a “Class B” property and compared the mill building to other Class B properties like the Silk Mill building in Florence, which houses medical services.

The artists in One Cottage Street, however, argue that the buildings listed in the analysis are not comparable. Instead, they feel One Cottage should be classified as a “Class C” property, which are typically characterized by older age, less desirable locations and in need of renovations.

In the view of the Cottage Street Studios Tenant Association, “the excellent location of One Cottage is the only feature that qualifies it as a Class B structure,” according to a packet of research Larson and her husband did to prove that One Cottage is Class C. “The age and condition of the building is squarely in the Class C range.”

In that research, which was provided to Riverside in a letter requesting a meeting with Riverside’s Board of Directors about the rent increases, the artists argued that some of the conditions of the building, including the upper floor restrooms, can be challenging for most tenants and visitors.

“Historically, tenants have accepted these restrictions and inconveniences as a trade-off for reasonable rates,” read the research.

Jones said Riverside has heard the questions and concerns from residents over the past several weeks. He said that he, the Larsons, Ireland, Riverside’s building manager, and the president of Riverside’s Board of Directors met a little while ago to talk about the situation. In that meeting, Jones said they made it clear that Board of Directors’ meetings are not a forum for tenants to bring their concerns.

“Tenants don’t regularly come into the board meetings to make presentations or to be a part of those discussions,” Jones said. “So, it really wasn’t appropriate for that.”

Instead, Jones said they encouraged the tenants to submit their concerns in writing and the board can “certainly bring them up” in discussion at a board meeting.

Larson and Kelm, however, said the Steering Committee from the Cottage Street Studios Artists Tenants Association has expressed in two separate letters to Riverside in May that they want to meet with Riverside’s Board of Directors and Building Committee to discuss alternatives to the situation.

Jones said that Riverside does not negotiate with rent associations; they deal with individual rental tenants.
What’s next?

With a little less than three months to go before the rents go up, tenants are afraid that they will be displaced because of these increases.

“For decades, we thought we were partners with Riverside,” said photographer Ellen Koteen, who has worked in the building for 18 years. “Our artists have run workshops with their clients, contributed to their annual fundraisers for years, and were instrumental in starting RiversideArts. We were shocked by such a steep increase, and concerned that Riverside won’t meet with us to discuss options.”

Kelm, who is 72 years old, said he has a number of projects he is already committed too for the next several months and there is no way he can downsize before he finishes them.

“I will end up staying, but I don’t know how I’m going to afford it,” Kelm said.

Larson, meanwhile, said she is unsure if she can downsize enough to make it affordable since woodworking needs a certain amount of space.

“Doubling of our rent for the exact same space, for the exact same amenities, or lack thereof, makes absolutely no sense,” Larson said.

The Tenants Association has received some help in this process from an eastern Massachusetts coalition called #ARTSSTAYHERE, which is a volunteer coalition of artists, musicians and advocates — people working in different parts of the creative economy — who, through coming together in one voice, work both to prevent arts and cultural displacement throughout Greater Boston.

The coalition helped the tenants form their own association, according to Ami Bennitt, a volunteer steering committee member for #ARTSTAYHERE.

“No one is saying you shouldn’t increase the rent, but a standard increase, if you talk to anyone who does commercial or residential real estate, is that it’s two or three percent a year in escalation,” Bennitt said. “Now, I’m not saying Riverside can afford that, but I’m saying as a nonprofit, they should have empathy for the artists who are also under market rate and come up with a solution.”

Bennitt said the coalition, which mostly deals with artists in eastern Massachusetts, said they were “horrified” when they got a call from the Cottage Street tenants because they did not expect a place in Western Massachusetts, where there density and property values are less, would experience similar situations as artists out in Boston.

“I guess no matter where you are though, if you don’t own property, you’re technically at risk ([of increased rents],” Bennitt said.

Jones said Riverside has no intention of displacing artists and they plan on working with the tenants to help them downsize if needed or find an alternative space in the building.

“We understand that this is going to be a really hard moment for our tenants,” Jones said. “I empathize with them.”

Larson and Kelm said the Tenants Association’s steering committee is asking for a gradual increase in rents rather than a stark increase, so the tenants have time to prepare.

rfeyre@thereminder.com | + posts