NEW BEDFORD — The big windows in Fallon Navarro’s ceramics studio on the fourth floor of the Star Store building provide abundant light and even a thin slice of harbor view, a big improvement for the UMass Dartmouth graduate student over the basement she worked in as an undergraduate at Arizona State University. She just signed a new lease for an apartment in town and has settled in with her pre-school age son, ready to begin her third year at the school preparing for her master’s thesis show in the spring.
“We love the building,” she said, referring to the students who work in the four-story former department store at the corner of Union and Purchase streets that has housed the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) since 2001. “We love working here.”
Now, though, her plans and those of many others in the CVPA have been thrown into confusion, as the UMass Dartmouth chancellor on Monday morning — nearly four weeks before classes are scheduled to begin on Sept. 6 — announced the school will abandon the building. Chancellor Mark Fuller says the move is unavoidable due to lack of money in the new state budget, and complications that arose last year in an effort to acquire the building.
Two state senators, including the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, however, say it’s more complicated than that. New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell called the decision “short sighted,” adding that the chancellor’s assertion that the move turned on one item in the state budget “strains credulity.”
Nearly 130 graduates and undergraduates taking classes and working in their studios in the building are left wondering what to do now. Local merchants who serve meals and drinks to students and faculty members say the college’s departure will hurt their business.
“It’s so sad, it’s so crazy,” said second-year ceramics graduate student Anis Beigzadeh, as she walked down the hall on the fourth floor on Monday afternoon and ran into her fellow graduate students Navarro, Jillian McEvoy and Matthew Napoli. “This is our home, this is our home. What’s happening to our home?”
They all got the news on Monday morning. They’d been spending hours on the phone and email with fellow students and faculty members trying to sort out next steps.
Beigzadeh, a native of Iran who moved from Chicago to New Bedford with her husband to study at UMass Dartmouth, said she’d been in touch with a friend from Iran who was now in China, who had also enrolled at UMass to study in the CVPA fiber program. She said her friend had to decide on Monday whether to sign a lease on a new apartment in New Bedford and was not certain what to do.
The students said the building provides excellent space and the equipment they need to do their work, and they were not sure how that would be replaced at the UMass campus in Dartmouth, or other spaces that Fuller in his announcement said the university would provide.
The question seemed particularly salient for students in the ceramics program, who depend on the 15 kilns — seven gas-powered, eight electric — located in one room on the fourth floor. A few of the gas kilns are the size of tool sheds, particularly suited to the large work that Navarro planned to include in her thesis show.
“That’s a lot of the reason a lot of us chose to come here for ceramics was for the facilities,” Navarro said, adding that she could not picture how the largest kilns could be moved elsewhere, and “if we can’t fire our work,” they can’t do the work.
Napoli, due to complete his master’s in fine arts in painting in the spring as part of a teaching fellowship, said he likes the generous space and the light up on the fourth floor, but also the powered wood shop in the basement that he uses to make stretchers for canvas and frames.
“It’s pretty heavy, it’s pretty disappointing,” especially now, as he understands enrollment in the program is growing. The decision, he said, “is going to harm enrollment; it’s going to harm revenue.”
Local merchants who count many students and faculty members among their steady customers were also concerned that the move would hurt their business.
“It’s a blow,” said Devin Byrnes, owner of Destination Soups, a 20- to 25-seat restaurant on Union Street just a few blocks from the Star Store. “I think downtown benefits from both the Star Store and BCC (Bristol Community College) here.”
“That’s a real bummer,” said Kristina Carrington, manager of Brick Pizzeria Napoletana, a 50-seat restaurant on Union. “I feel like that’s going to take a toll on everyone downtown.”
So, what happened? The answer at the moment is as clear as muddy clay that might be fashioned into something lovely by a talented ceramics student.
In an interview late Monday afternoon, UMass Chancellor Mark Fuller said that the $2.7 million that had been allocated in the budget in the past to cover the lease agreement for the building was in the House version of the budget, but did not make it through House-Senate negotiations on the spending plan that was sent to Gov. Maura Healey and signed on Aug. 9. Once that shoe dropped, he said, there was no way UMass could stay at the Star Store, and he was advised by lawyers of the UMass Building Authority to quit the premises “as soon as possible,” as Barbara Kroncke, executive director of the UMBA put it in a letter to Fuller on Aug. 9.
“At the university level, we’re devastated by this,” said Fuller, adding that the university would leave the building by Aug. 31. “We’ve been there for 20 years.”
He said since the 20-year lease expired in 2021, the university has been in discussions with legislators, officials of UMBA and the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), which manages state properties. In those discussions, the lease between DCAMM and the building owner, Paul Downey, of Star Store Holdings LLC, was extended two more years at a cost of about $2.7 million per year.
The original lease included an option for the state at the end of the 20 years to buy the building for $1. Asked why the university did not exercise that option, Fuller said in an interview that it was up to DCAMM to make that decision.
A university spokesman, Ryan Merrill, later sent a copy of an August 2022 letter to Star Store Holdings from DCAMM and the UMBA exercising the purchase option. Merrill said the landlord “raised legal challenges to the purchase which is why the purchase did not occur.”
Members of the state Legislature say that purchase had to be made for the state to invest the millions it was prepared to spend on maintenance that everyone agrees is needed.
State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, put the onus on UMass.
“The bottom line is the university doesn’t want the building,” said Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat. “If the university wanted it to happen it would happen. It’s that simple.”
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Sen. Mark Montigny, who was instrumental in bringing UMass to downtown New Bedford in the first place, said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed that DCAMM and the university neglected multiple opportunities to meet their basic responsibility to protect taxpayers and students by neglecting to secure the campus in accordance with my original legislation.”
He said he would continue working to keep the CVPA in the Star Store.
Mayor Mitchell, who said the CVPA has anchored the downtown’s cultural scene for over 20 years, said he was standing by to help in that effort. But he chided all the players for not figuring out how to avoid this outcome.
“All the parties have had several years to structure an agreement which would put the CVPA on a firm, long-term footing in our downtown,” Mitchell said. “The failure to arrive at an agreement will now be felt by the students, faculty, residents, local businesses, and the City, which stands to lose a major anchor institution. “
Email Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.