To Jen Millis, her space inside the Sound Museum in Brighton is more than a place for band practice. There is a mural painted by her friend, artist Massiel Grullón. Flyers of tours and shows she and her band Saint Ripper have played adorn the space. The room is set up with the band’s gear, merch and a mirror with ring lights so the band can get ready to play a show. “Every single thing that we needed to be in our band was in that practice space set up for us,” she said. “All of the spaces that I've used have been really special places because we do create our music there.”
As a musician in the Boston punk scene for 20 years, with practice spaces in the city for 15, being kicked out of them due to development is all too familiar for Millis. “While I'm happy to move and find a new place, obviously it's getting harder and harder,” she said. “You can't afford to live in Boston right now on the types of jobs that most musicians work. A lot of musicians work in bars, work behind registers.” When Millis heard the news about the Sound Museum’s proposed demolition, it was yet another instance of potentially losing a space to make art.
Established by Bill “Des” Desmond 40 years ago and operating at 155 N. Beacon St. in Brighton for 32 years, the Sound Museum has a long history of providing rehearsal and practice space to numerous bands and musicians, including The Cure and Iggy Pop. Though those with international fame have graced the Sound Museum, so have local musicians who have found a community there.
Offering practice space for 300 musicians and one of the few 24-hour facilities in the city, the Sound Museum is one of a few businesses still occupying the building. Previously owned by The Hamilton Company, San Diego-based life science developer IQHQ purchased the building for $50 million in March of 2021. Desmond said rent had increased every year for the past five years under The Hamilton Company. In IQHQ’s project notification form submitted to the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), the building was characterized as “an older, nondescript building, nearing the end of its useful life.”
The BPDA held a virtual public meeting for 155 N. Beacon St. on Jan. 18, which was attended by over 140 individuals. IQHQ presented its plan to demolish the building and replace it with a life science campus totaling about 409,395 square feet. During the public comment portion, attendees expressed concerns about the development’s implications and the developer’s lack of transparency, asking for documented confirmation about the construction of a new Sound Museum, as mentioned in IQHQ’s Jan. 12 press release. (The Boston Landmarks Commission received an Article 85 demolition delay application from IQHQ on the day of the public meeting: In 1995 the Boston Zoning Code was amended to include a demolition delay policy. The comment period for the property ends on Feb. 4.)
In IQHQ’s press release, the company stated they are collaborating with Desmond on building a new Sound Museum that includes practice space, performance space and two recording studios. “We've hired a broker, we've hired an architect and we have our own in-house folks that do our leasing,” said David Surette, senior vice president at IQHQ. A new location has not yet been determined, though IQHQ and Desmond are scouting sites in Boston. “We're not going to be booted out onto the street until the facility’s built,” Desmond said.
According to Surette, construction projects of the scale proposed for 155 N. Beacon St. typically take 30 months. This project will mark the first time IQHQ has worked with artists. “[We’ve] got to learn a lot,” Surette said.
However, the commitment to finding a new space for the Sound Museum was not mentioned in the project notification form (PNF), nor IQHQ’s presentation at the meeting on Jan. 18. During the meeting, Jennifer Schultz, permitting counsel for IQHQ, responded to questions from the public regarding the omission, stating that the process had just begun and there is more to come. “We have been forming the conceptual approach to the development,” Schultz said at the meeting.
On Sept. 13, 2021, IQHQ filed a letter of intent for the project. Elected city officials responded with a letter of comment on Oct. 12 opposing the project in its form at the time. A Jan. 18 letter addressed to Caitlin Coppinger, project manager at BPDA, from elected city officials noted that IQHQ did not respond to their letter of comment and failed to make significant changes to the proposed project in response to concerns. The letter read: “We will not support this project until 1.) The Proponent commits to the inclusion of a rehearsal and recording facility on-site at 155 North Beacon Street, and 2.) Adequate steps are taken to ensure that this space remains permanently accessible to and affordable for Allston, Brighton and Boston musicians.” The letter was signed by City Councilor Liz Breadon, State Rep. Kevin Honan, Assistant Majority Leader Michael Moran, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, City Councilor Julia Mejia and City Councilor Erin Murphy.
IQHQ’s presentation at the meeting focused on their detailed plan for developing a sprawling life science campus complete with three buildings, an underground two-level parking garage for 328 vehicles, retail space and green space. The company has already made a mark in Greater Boston with developments like Fenway Center, Alewife Park and 109 Brookline Ave. According to Matt Formicola, director of design at IQHQ, the proximity of 155 N. Beacon St. to Boston Landing will attract more visitors. Formicola and Schultz went into detail about open space, pedestrian and cyclist safety, campus design, community benefits and sustainability. Their plan includes building a teaching lab at Brighton High School so students can be prepared to find employment in the life science labs in the neighborhood.
Chelsea Ellsworth, a musician and Sound Museum tenant who runs a recording studio in the building, was not satisfied with the plan IQHQ presented. “It was almost completely unanimous from everybody in the entire 140-person meeting that [the plan] is not good enough on every level. Questions definitely weren't answered,” Ellsworth said. Regarding IQHQ’s talk about sustainability, she voiced her opinion: demolishing the existing building will spell negative effects for the environment by increasing traffic and air pollution.
Ellsworth’s recording studio, one of the few transgender-owned in the state, prioritizes low-income and marginalized musicians who do not have the opportunity to record at other facilities. “It does truly feel like every entity in Boston is working against the idea that marginalized creative forces can sustain themselves.”
Artists in Boston have already lost EMF in Cambridge, Great Scott in Allston, OBERON in Cambridge and more. “There's always venues gone, it's become near impossible to book shows anywhere without at least a three-month notice,” said Brian Poulin, a musician and former Sound Museum tenant who’s lived in Boston for 11 years. “If people don't have a place to go play their music, there's not going to be any new output of music coming from this place.”
With this trajectory, Poulin said the city will continue losing the people who shape the culture. “You're not going to see a lot of cool flyers posted anywhere as much. You're not going to be able to walk down the street and hear a band that you've never heard play and be like, ‘I wonder what's going on in that building.’...It's going to feel like a milquetoast s----- city.”
Though Desmond acknowledged development’s negative impact on the city’s art spaces, he remains optimistic about the Sound Museum’s future. “If [IQHQ] helps me, I’m the one everybody's been under all these years. I mean, we're the biggest independent rehearsal complex in the Northeast,” he said. “The mission is to continue what we’re doing and keeping it as affordable as humanly possible.”
IQHQ plans to host an open house during the week of Feb. 21, which the company says will be an opportunity for people to meet with the developers. The company will also launch a website detailing the development design and schedule. BPDA will host another Impact Advisory Group meeting, though a date has yet to be confirmed as of this writing.
Millis said she would love to see concerns from artists taken seriously, but in her experience with being evicted from EMF, she and her bandmates tried to make their voices heard at meetings, but “nothing became of it.”
With the Sound Museum facing demolition, Millis emphasized the importance of affordable and centrally located practice spaces. “For most of us, [playing] music isn't paying any kind of bills. So it's for fun, for expression, entertainment for each other and for ourselves,” she said. “I am looking at the Sound Museum and being like, ‘How about right here [at 155 N. Beacon St.]?’ How about this space is cleaned up and made better and there is space in it for musicians?”