Guest Op-ed Just Say No to Hotel Alexandra

By George Stergios

Thanks to the efforts of the South End Historical Society (SEHS), the South End was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Ten years later, the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) was created to safeguard what made the South End worthy of that placement, that it was  “a cohesive district of 19th-Century Victorian red brick rowhouses….[in which the] houses appear relatively uniform in size, material, and style, the individuality of the unit being subordinated to the harmony of the street.”  The beauty that attracted many of us to the South End is not about the splendor of any one building, but the effect of the extended harmony of the whole.  A rare achievement that is becoming even rarer in the age of celebrity architects.

While the SEHS and the SELDC have done much of the heavy lifting, all of us have made our contribution by maintaining our homes, and maintaining them to the often cumbersome and expensive Standards and Criteria of the SELDC. Everyone who has wanted to replace their windows, resurface their stoop, or alter their building’s exterior, and every developer who had to stay within the maximum height of 70 feet despite financial hardship, has made a sacrifice to preserve the architectural harmony of the South End.

All of us apart from the Church of Scientology.

The Scientologists bought the Hotel Alexandra and the Ivory Bean Building in 2008 as their new Boston headquarters, but had to postpone development because of the financial crisis. They spent the money to demolish the Ivory Bean in 2011 but spent little to secure the main building, so that by the time their finances had revived, the cost of repairing the façade made their original plans impossible. So, they put it back on the market.

When you and I allow our homes to deteriorate, we do not expect the buyer to pick up the cost, we, instead, cut the price. So even if prices in general are up, we might lose money when the damage is severe. But billion-dollar real estate empires do not have follow the same rules as we do. The Scientologists bought the property for $4.5 million, but the increased cost of securing the façade more than erases the 50 percent appreciation in real estate prices in this area since 2008. Instead of accepting a loss, the Scientologists found a developer willing to pay them $17 million, but only if the SELDC and neighborhoods allowed it to add 15 stories. We refused, and the Scientologists found a developer that was willing to pay $12 million if we let it add eight stories.

As one wag put it, the Scientologists are holding the building hostage and threatening to let it fall down unless we pay the ransom, or more accurately, we shred the current 70-foot zoning so that the current developer can afford to pay the ransom. They are asking us to trade the harmony of the whole to save the façade.

I, like my neighbors, am exasperated when I see the Hotel Alexandra in its current derelict state. Nevertheless, the solution is not to bail out a billion-dollar real estate empire and give every other owner of derelict or undeveloped property a reason to hold out for drastic changes in zoning and a sky-high price. The SELDC should reject this proposal because it overpowers “the harmony of the street,” because it mocks every one of us who walked the SELDC tightrope, and because it sets a dreadful precedent. Then let the BPDA do what some have been asking it to do for years, condemn the property and seize it by eminent domain at a “fair price.”

Once you subtract the cost of stabilizing the façade from the price, any competent developer of mixed-income housing will be able to make money while restoring its splendid façade within the current zoning.

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