USES Takes Close Look at Selling Tubman House, Some Upset with Process

After a long planning process, the United South End Settlements (USES) is about to put out an RFP to sell its Harriet Tubman House headquarters on Columbus Avenue and begin planning for consolidating the organization at its Rutland Street location.

Meanwhile, many of the organizations serving people of color in the neighborhood say they are not happy with the process that played out, with virtually none of them being included in the process.

Executive Director Maicharia Weir Lytle said that as part of the Vision 125 Strategic Plan, they formed a real estate committee on the Board that has determined the best course of action for the organization is to consolidate and re-build the Rutland Street property, and then look at selling the Columbus Avenue building via an RFP process.

“We’re getting really excited about being able to re-build the Harriet Tubman House at the Rutland Street campus,” she said. “This would give us the new, new Harriet Tubman House, which was on Holyoke Street and was re-built on Columbus Avenue in 1976. At Columbus Avenue, even with a redevelopment, we were looking at a significant amount of work…This does allow us to preserve USES’s history and preserve our future.”

She said they are working on an RFP for the Columbus Avenue building, which also has six non-profit tenants who are aware of the plan, and it would be coming out very soon. She said any RFP submitted would have to have a significant community or public benefit within any such development. That, she said, is left up to the creativity of the applicants – but could be more affordable housing, green space, civic space or cultural space.

“We want to see what people will come up with,” she said.

Lytle said the overall Vision plan was necessary in order to preserve the organization, which is 125 years old. When she arrived three years ago to “rescue” the organization, she said she quickly realized things had to change fast or they would fold.

Last year, USES announced a change in programming, dropping some adult programs and focusing on children and families – particularly looking to break the cycle of poverty in the neighborhood.

That plan to sell Columbus and consolidate on Rutland, among other things, was presented to the community on Oct. 11 in a public meeting.

However another meeting at St. Stephens Church took place on Monday, Oct. 15, and included many of the sister non-profits from the neighborhood – and most said they felt they had been excluded from the plan.

Steven Godfrey, a native Southender and Board member at IBA, said most of the communities of color were left out of USES’s process. He said in the past, the neighborhood’s non-profits have created a “circle” of protection for one another, but that didn’t happen this time.

Somewhere, he said, there has been a breakdown.

“You can’t say you’ve gone through a thorough strategic planning process and your organizations of color haven’t been engaged,” he said. “that just doesn’t fly. We are friends and supporters and allied with USES and we want to succeed. But that organization has played a role in the neighborhood over the years that is broader than its mission…By no means do I think the sale of the Tubman House or the re-development of Rutland Street is going to be an easy thing…There are two South Ends and I love them both, but there needs to be a bridge here. I would never say I want nothing but success for them, but these key organizations not having participated is a problem.”

He said that IBA, St. Stephens Church, Blackstone Community Center, Tenants Development Corporation and others were not engaged in the two-year USES planning process.

He said they have very high hopes that the situation could be worked out and the process can continue with those that have been left out.

On Rutland Street, Lytle said they plan to consolidate the Tubman House, the South End House and the Children’s Art Center into one building. They plan to renovate the existing building and then adding on to the building where the playground is currently located. She said even after the addition, they would have plenty of room for open space.

There, they would concentrate on their youth programming, including their after-school programs. She said they also would have an adult job training program located there as well, though the mission would primarily be to serve youth and families in the South End in order to break the cycle of poverty.

Another aspect of the real estate situation is to invest in Camp Hale, a summer camp that USES youth go to each year to get away from the City. It’s been a long-standing tradition and Lytle said it was something that has been transformative for youth in the South End over generations. She said they are renovating Camp Hale at a cost of $4.5 million, with $2.3 million already raised.

Beyond that, the change – which Lytle said was necessary to save the organization – has been emotional for USES and its allies.

“This is a decision we made to ensure the organization would be financially sustainable,” she said. “There are a lot of emotions in this and I’ve had a lot of emotions. What encourages me is the important work we’ve been doing with our children and families…This feels like the right thing for us to do now, even though it is such a tough decision.”

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