Looming rent hikes worry artists at Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about Riverside, the One Cottage Street building and why rents need to be increased to meet a bottom line.

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about Riverside, the One Cottage Street building and why rents need to be increased to meet a bottom line. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about Riverside, the One Cottage Street building and why rents need to be increased to meet a bottom line.

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about Riverside, the One Cottage Street building and why rents need to be increased to meet a bottom line. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about Riverside, the One Cottage Street building and why rents need to be increased to meet a bottom line.

Markus Jones, the senior director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks about Riverside, the One Cottage Street building and why rents need to be increased to meet a bottom line. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Greg Larson, of Cottage Street Wood Working,  in his studio space at One Cottage Street.

Greg Larson, of Cottage Street Wood Working, in his studio space at One Cottage Street. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Lynne Adams, a painter and art teacher, works with her student, Emily Chaput, in Adams’ studio space at One Cottage Street in Easthampton.

Lynne Adams, a painter and art teacher, works with her student, Emily Chaput, in Adams’ studio space at One Cottage Street in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Peter Geraty of Praxis Bindery, works on a book in his studio space at Cottage Street in Easthampton.

Peter Geraty of Praxis Bindery, works on a book in his studio space at Cottage Street in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Daniel Kelm, an artist and tenant at One Cottage Street for the last 39 years, holds one of his books in his studio space, which is about 1,850 square feet.

Daniel Kelm, an artist and tenant at One Cottage Street for the last 39 years, holds one of his books in his studio space, which is about 1,850 square feet. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Lynne Adams, a painter and art teacher, works with her student, Emily Chaput, in Adams’ studio space at One Cottage Street in Easthampton.

Lynne Adams, a painter and art teacher, works with her student, Emily Chaput, in Adams’ studio space at One Cottage Street in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXA LEWIS

Staff Writer

Published: 05-24-2024 3:35 PM

Modified: 05-24-2024 5:14 PM


EASTHAMPTON — Tensions are rising within the iconic walls of One Cottage Street as the building’s longtime owner moves ahead with rent increases that many artists who work there say could jeopardize the vibrant arts community they’ve built in the city’s downtown since the late 1970s.

Riverside Industries, which owns the building, recently announced a “rent equalization” initiative as part of an ongoing strategic planning project. For the building’s tenants, many of whom are longtime artists in residence at Cottage Street Studios, this presents a jarring increase in rent that could make remaining in the building a formidable challenge.

“A lot of people have been here for over 40 years, and many of us are at the stage in our careers where this was going to be the last space for us before retirement,” said Margaret Larson, a tenant at Cottage Street and member of their newly formed Tenant Association. “Riverside has had some lean years in the past, and we were always able to maintain our symbiotic relationship. Now, times are tough again, and we want to help without being displaced.”

Riverside Industries, which is dedicated to the empowerment of adults with disabilities, was awarded the property at One Cottage Street for just $1 in 1976 by J.P. Stevens. Previously a factory space, the 174,000-square-foot building at the corner of Cottage and Union streets offered Riverside a location to host many programs enriching the lives of individuals with disabilities.

However, the building’s size and age have increasingly burdened the nonprofit with maintenance costs.

“We’ve been developing our strategic plan since the fall, with three areas of focus: people, programs and place,” said Markus Jones, senior director of development and strategic operations for Riverside Industries. “Part of the ‘place’ aspect is changing our relationship with the building to become better stewards of it. Historically, Riverside has been absorbing a lot of the costs to upkeep and maintain it.”

Two of the biggest maintenance projects facing the building now are the replacement of its boiler and fire suppression system, which are no longer able to meet the demands of the building, according to Jones.

Aside from building maintenance, Riverside’s strategic planning also has goals of bolstering employment after the pandemic era left them with more than 50 vacant positions, with a focus on becoming a choice employer and offering opportunities to individuals with disabilities or who speak English as a second language. They also hope to expand various programs, including a beloved art program.

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However, Riverside’s programs and their participants occupy only a fraction of the building. Riverside also operates a distribution warehouse while housing more than 100 tenants, most of whom are artists. Cottage Street Studios, which has grown to more than 85 artists, make up a majority of those tenants. Outside of grants, donations and fundraising, the warehouse and tenants serve as main sources of income for the building — albeit, not enough.

 

Rent increases

 

Riverside announced the rent increase to tenants in late April. Currently, rents in the building range from $5 to $15 per square foot, but Riverside’s rent equalization will bring all tenants into leases with rents of $15 per square foot, beginning Sept. 1. For a tenant leasing 1,000 square feet, for example, that annual increase would triple from $5,000 at the low end to $15,000 at the high end.

 

According to Riverside CEO Lynn Ireland, this figure was decided upon through a market analysis comparing similar rental buildings in the region. Tenants, however, disagree that the buildings listed in the analysis are truly comparable.

Larson and her husband and fellow Cottage Street tenant, Greg Larson, visited the compared properties, which are all designated as “Class B” properties due to their age, condition, and location. Next, the Larsons visited two “Class C” properties, characterized by their older age, dated interiors, and less desirable locations, coming to the conclusion that “the excellent location of One Cottage Street is the only feature that qualifies it as a Class B structure. The age and condition of the research is squarely in the Class C range,” which they said tenants accept “as a trade-off for reasonable rates” in a packet of this research sent to the Riverside board of directors and Building Committee.

The Larsons’ research was attached to the Cottage Street Tenant Association’s request for an in-person meeting with the board and committee members to discuss the rent increase, which they say went ignored. The association said that they “understand that Riverside has a financial need to raise our rents,” but “are opposed to the extreme rate of increase, the one-size-fits-all rate, and the short notice in which we have to prepare for it.”

Tenants must notify Riverside of their intent to stay, relocate, or downsize by Aug. 1.

The Larsons met with Ireland, Jones, Building Manager Sergio Hernandez, and board Chair Melissa Pike. They were told by Pike that neither the board nor the Building Committee would meet with them, according to Margaret Larson.

“We were shocked by such a steep increase, and concerned that Riverside won’t meet with us to discuss options,” said Ellen Koteen, a photographer who has worked in the building for over 18 years.

According to Jones, a letter was sent to some of the more senior tenants inviting them to a meeting during the early stages of Riverside’s strategic planning.

“Nobody showed up,” he said. “We’ve been communicating with the tenants about our strategic planning since January, but we never really heard anything back until late April, when we announced the rent equalization.”

Members of the Tenant Association said that they did not know of anyone who had received this initial invitation. When another invitation was sent out inviting tenants to a strategic planning presentation presented by Ireland, over 40 of them participated, Margaret Larson said.

“Historically, we’ve had a wonderful, symbiotic relationship with Riverside, and One Cottage Street has been such an important hub in Easthampton — Riverside’s programs and the artists’ work have really enriched the community,” said Janet Aalfs, who has been an artist and art instructor in the building for over 40 years. “There’s a beautiful relationship between us and the larger community that’s worth saving. What’s at stake to be lost here is huge.”

“What we’re asking [Riverside] is: Can we work something out where we can both survive?” said Greg Larson. “It’s the fact that they just won’t talk with us that’s so disheartening. Our relationship has been so good for so long — we know it’s not personal, but we can’t help but feel like we’re being pushed out.”

Abbie Steiner, a painter at One Cottage Street and member of Oxbow Gallery, will not be greatly impacted by the rent increases because she began her tenure in the building just two years ago, when higher rents were already being implemented for new tenants. However, she still worries about what the changes mean for the Cottage Street community she consciously sought to be a part of.

“There’s a really special community here that I’m so proud to be a part of,” she said. “It scares me that there’s no assurance for us going forward, and that so many artists that have been instrumental in this community for so long are getting pushed out.”

Both Greg and Margaret Larson also expressed concern about Riverside’s ability to rent out vacated units at the new price.

“If they lose tenants, this situation would only get worse,” said Margaret Larson.

In a letter to tenants on May 20, Ireland announced that management of the One Cottage Street property will be transferred to the company NAI Plotkin on July 1, two months before the proposed rent increase is slated to go into effect. “As a nonprofit, charitable organization, Riverside does not have property management expertise,” she said.

Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com or on Instagram and Twitter at @alexamlewis.