Tubman House Project Gets Approval at BPDA Amidst Controversy

The controversial Harriet Tubman House sale and re-development plan was approved by the board of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) in a unanimous vote at the Board’s regular meeting on Dec. 12.

The sale and re-development – which including demolishing the existing Tubman House property at 566 Columbus Ave. – had been the source of three unruly and extremely contentious public meetings where supporters of the ownership, United South End Settlements (USES), clashed routinely (and sometimes physically) with members of the community that opposed the sale. Those in opposition included Tenants Development Corporation (TDC) and the non-profit Resilient Sisterhood Project – both of whom leased space in the Tubman House.

The approval clears the way for the development of 66 ownership units, including 11 affordable ones, a community space and a social enterprise café. It also helps USES to consolidate its programming at two properties on Rutland Street while also providing a nest egg from the proceeds of the sale to ensure the viability of the organization, which the leadership of USES has said is on very shaky ground financially.

USES President and CEO Maicharia Weir Lytle said after the vote she was grateful for the approval, and they will begin sorting out next steps in January.

“This sale gives us a lifeline to continue our work in service to the families who depend upon us and to expand much needed services. Now, the real work begins,” she said. “In the coming weeks and months, we will be sorting out next steps and timelines – but for now, everyone here at USES is thankful to be in a position to better serve our community, something we have done with pride for nearly 128 years.” 

Weir Lytle also thanked the supporters who came out to all three of the meetings and stood up for USES, she said.

Officials from TDC did not return inquires to comment on the approval.

There had been tense moments last week after the third unruly meeting took place on Monday, Dec. 9. Many were concerned that after such vocal opposition, the project might not move forward.

However, when the agenda came out just after 2 p.m. on Dec. 10, the matter was on for a vote. Because it is a project that adheres to zoning, there is no Article 80 review process – so the BPDA board approval was a critical end to what has been a trying process for the community.

The New Boston Ventures project includes 55 home-ownership units, and 11 income-restricted artist live/work units.

The ground floor space of the building will feature an artist gallery, an exhibit space open to the public that highlights the cultural heritage of the neighborhood, and a social enterprise cafe to be named The Hi-Hat in honor of the famed jazz club that once occupied the same corner of Columbus and Massachusetts Avenue. Fifty percent of the commercial space will be dedicated to non-profit use at affordable rents. 
Additionally, the proponent has agreed to the relocation or reproduction of the mural that currently wraps around the front exterior of the existing building. The project will also contribute a community benefits package of $250,000 which includes funding for neighborhood organizations in the South End and Lower Roxbury. 

On the Market?

Rumors swirling around the neighborhood this week revealed that Tenants Development Corporation (TDC) had hired a downtown broker and is taking offers to sell 186 of its apartments across 36 Brownstone buildings in the South End.

St. James Real Estate Advisors, of downtown Boston, has listed the South End Tenants Houses II on its website this week and is taking offers and giving tours of the properties.

“We Are Offering the Entire Portfolio Without an Asking Price and Will Be Conducting Property Tours over the Coming Weeks,” read the listing. “All Tours Must Be Escorted by Saint James and Scheduled in Advance.”

The highlights include that the units are 100 percent affordable with contracts in place, and that they have expiring use agreements. They are expected to sell at significantly below replacement value, and they include units from studio size to five-bedroom apartments.

TDC officials did not return a request for comment on the development.

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