Boston’s Seaport district has been getting a lot of attention lately. As Amazon looks to expand there, Governor Charlie Baker is promising to sink millions into transportation. While luxury condos are being built on every corner, the city of Boston is also offering up a pretty unique opportunity — a 13,000 square-foot space right on the waterfront just for civic and cultural use.
The address, 50 Liberty, sits right on the water’s edge on Fan Pier. The Boston Planning and Development Agency and the Fallon Company are ready to hand over the building's first two floors to a local civic or cultural organization for just $1 per year in rent. After eight organizations submitted their proposals, the city narrowed the list down to four finalists.
They range from the long-established Boston Center for the Arts and creative writing organization GrubStreet, to the lesser-known Medicine Wheel Productions and the brand new collective, C3. Competition is stiff as each organization has something unique to offer. Julie Burros, Boston's chief of arts and culture, said that’s exactly what they’re looking for in this space.
“It's really a win-win here to help serve the needs of the cultural uses and our cultural community and artists, and then also bring a really unique kind of offering to a building that might not ordinarily think of a civic or cultural use as part of the mix,” Burros said.
That mix is mostly made up of luxury condos, with some units selling for upwards of $3 million, and plans for restaurants and retail shops. It’s an ironic twist — this opportunity comes as more and more artists in the Boston area are being displaced, their studios converted to condos. Eve Bridburg, founder and head of GrubStreet, has been worried about getting priced out of their current Boylston Street location, and has been looking for a space like 50 Liberty in order to be more accessible to city residents.
“We want to build a storytelling center or narrative art center. We’ll have a café during the day and a wine bar at night and something we’re calling the ‘writer’s stage,” Bridburg said.
GrubStreet's first-floor plans also include another Harvard Bookstore location. They also have $2 million from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation, contingent on winning the space. GrubStreet hopes to hold performances and new author launches here and provide “cheap coffee and cheap wine.”
Bridburg said she wants 50 Liberty to be intersectional, “so that we can hear from people all over the city, from all races and backgrounds. We want to really push against the very wealthy culture of the Seaport.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Tiffany Cogell, a community organizer and co-founder of Cross Cultural Collective, or C3. She said C3 wants to reclaim the Seaport to foster artists of color and promote discussions about equity in Boston.
“What we aim to do is to be that inclusive organization, carving out a black space on the Seaport. C3 will be a civic center cultural space that amplifies and celebrates African diasporic arts,” Cogell said.
C3’s plans include a café, gallery and a large performance space.
“That's where we'll have all of our wonderful dance performances and musical concerts and even some rental space for workshops,” Cogell explained.
The second floor would house what Cogell described as healing spaces, which will be used for yoga and meditation.
In the South End, the Boston Center for the Arts has provided affordable studio spaces to artists since 1970. Chief advancement officer, Emily Foster Day, said their vision for the Fan Pier project includes even more studios and a high-tech maker space. They also want to expand their residency program, which is called Run of the Mills.
“We really mash up performing and visual arts, music, and we give artists working these disciplines an opportunity to kind of come together to do something really exciting and new," said Day. "We envisioned that the space will be a place where that can happen more often.”
Michael Dowling of Medicine Wheel Productions, a public arts organization based in South Boston, said he wants to expand the work they do with marginalized communities and programs like Hand in Hand, which brings young people and police officers to create art together.
“We're responding, I think, to some of the biggest needs of our time around homelessness, poverty, ... race, addiction, human trafficking, and we're using art really as a threshold to invite people to claim their rightful places in community as vital members,” Dowling said.
He envisions an urban meditation room and gallery for young and emerging artists and a space for workshops and adult education programs. Dowling wants to reach a population that would otherwise not to come to the waterfront.
“The waterfront is never going to be inclusive because it's a housing issue. And I think the best that we can hope for is that we invite people to feel that they are welcomed in their own city,” Dowling said. "We see ourselves in some ways as a counterweight to the ICA, the conversations that the ICA has — in maybe a more esoteric way. And ours is more of a visceral exploration of daily lives and the people who live, work and go to school in Boston.”
It’s now up to the Boston Planning and Development Agency and the Fallon Company to make a decision. Burros said the conceptual vision is the main focal point, but the city and Fallon will also be looking at long-term sustainability and built-in partnerships.
“We're looking for a track record and a vision and then some of that organizational heft and stability and relationships with partners, so that we can rest assured it'll be the most advantageous choice for the public,” she said.
The winner among the four finalists will be announced in the next few months.