SELDC Seeks Alternatives for Arts Center Demo

The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) on October 5 asked for a continuance on a proposal to demolish the existing building at 85 West Newton St., which is currently occupied by  nquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) Preschool and the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts.

This is not the first time the SELDC has heard proposals for this building, as IBA has previously come before the Commission with plans to restore portions of the historic former church and parish house.

Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, Executive Director of IBA, said that since IBA acquired the building in 1980,  it has been used for the preschool program, community gathering spaces, and a community arts center. In 2017, they planned on completing renovations to the steeple as well as other exterior restorations,  but could not continue the work once structural deficiencies were discovered.

Since meeting with the SELDC in July, IBA got a report from structural engineers regarding the safety and stability of the building, and in September, the Boston Fire Department and the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) determined that that part of the building was no longer safe, and said the building must be vacated completely.

Peter Munkenbeck, consultant to IBA, said that the original plan was to restore what can be seen in historical photos, but after learning of the deep rot on the north portion of the building, that was no longer an option, and scaffolding was put up along the north elevation. As of October 5th, ISD gave IBA 24 hours to provide a plan of action, so they came before the SELDC with a request to demolish the entire building. “We are preparing and plan to submit to ISD a 120 day plan,” Munkenbeck said. “This needs a careful plan.”

Munkenbeck said that since it is impossible to save the tower and the north wall, the entire tower needs to be removed. The tower is not a separate tower, but rather part of the building itself as it is one whole corner of the building. “We can’t leave a building where ten or fifteen percent of the building is exposed to weather,” he said, so their solution is to demolish the entire building and build new. “We wouldn’t be able to act on a partial demolition because the tower is part of the the building and is not a separate tower,” Munkenbeck said.

“We are not claiming it’s physically impossible [to restore the tower and north wall],” he said, but they have filled out a hardship application because IBA does not have the money to do the restoration with the current state of the building. The hardship application would allow the Commission to approve the demolition of the building based on economic hardship of the applicant, but the Commission was not clear on who approves applications of hardship and said that would need to be further discussed with Landmarks staff.

Commissioner John Freeman asked why this is not “demolition by neglect,” and Munkenbeck responded by saying “it seems to me that neglect is behavior where things are clear and the owner doesn’t do anything. Things were deeply hidden here. Neglect doesn’t apply in a situation where we had a plan and we were halfway through executing it and found more damage.”

Commissioner Peter Sanborn asked if the applicants have considered and/or explored selling the property. Munkenbeck said that the idea had been explored with IBA’s board of directors but determined that there is “no feasible alternative site” for IBA to be able to offer what it does at the current site.

Sanborn said he believes it’s necessary to “query” the applicants on all possibilities, as he feels the Commission is being backed into a corner to make the decision to demolish the building.  

Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said he wondered if there might be a “creative engineering design solution” to this issue that would prevent the automatic demolition of the building. “To me, there’s a pretty wide gap between options,” he said, and he encouraged the exploration of other in-between options. “I think the Commission needs to think about what precedent might be set for others in terms of hardship,” he added, saying that it’s a “dangerous door to open.”

The architect present said that they “tried to save as many things as possible,” and that there could be other solutions, but “if they’re not within the financial means of the client,” then they would not be feasible.

“There has to be some intermediate step here before you just tear down the whole building,” said Commissioner Catherine Hunt. Commissioner Diana Parcon agreed with her, adding that she believes they should ask the applicants to come back with more evidence of why it has to be demolished as well as come up with some alternatives. “There has to be some kind of middle ground here that we can work with,” she said.

After further discussion between the project proponents and the Commission, the Commission ultimately decided to continue this project to a special hearing prior to the regular December SELDC hearing, as they believe other solutions can and should be discussed instead of rushing to approve the demolition of this historic building. They put several provisos on this decision, including that IBA is directed to respond to the ISD violation notice “but that there should be no misinterpretation that the Commission is authorizing or approving demolition,” the Commission understands that no demolition will occur prior to January 6 as per current proposal to ISD, and that Landmarks be included in any meetings going forward with ISD or the Boston Preservation Alliance.

Additionally, the Boston Preservation Alliance offered involvement in some capacity and the SELDC “will accept that involvement in whatever way they can proceed.” The hardship application will also be expedited by Landmarks, the applicant must provide the SELDC with a letter addressing the question of demolition by neglect and how this level of deterioration happened without awareness by professionals or facilities staff, and that Landmarks will have conversations with ISD independently of any other meetings to better understand their requirements.

Landmarks staff said they would be in touch with the applicant about next steps and to schedule a hearing date to continue the conversation.

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