A community meeting regarding the proposed demolition of the building at 85 West Newton St., which is a former church that has been used for more than 30 years by Inquilinos Boricuas en Action (IBA) as a community center and preschool, took place Tuesday, Feb. 4, at Piemonte Room at City Hall. After attempts to restore the building, severe damage was found and IBA said they are left with no choice but to demolish the building, as restoring the damage would be far too expensive and jeopardize the financial security of the organization.
IBA has come before the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) several times regarding this project, but the SELDC has not granted a hardship waiver to allow the building to be demolished. IBA has also met with the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) several times, but has never come directly before the community regarding this issue, so they thought a public meeting was in order to give neighbors a chance to weigh in and ask questions about the process.
“We are approaching the future of this building with the utmost sensitivity,” said Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, CEO of IBA. “Over the years we have invested several million dollars in capital improvements and fixes.”
Calderon-Rosado said that a historic preservation consultant was hired to lead the renovation work, as the original intent of IBA was to renovate the deteriorating building. “We never anticipated another outcome for this building,” she said. The SELDC originally approved a renovation to the belfry and steeple. “As construction started, it became apparent that the tower was unsound all the way down to the ground,” Calderon-Rosado said. “The cost of fixing the issue would double the original budget to almost $2.4 million. Going forward with this would threaten the future of IBA.” On Sept. 20, IBA was asked to completely evacuate the building as it was determined unsafe by several engineers.
“We are committed to this community and preserving affordable housing and creating a community center.”— Vanessa Calderon-Rosado
Additionally, Calderon-Rosado said that “we recognized this process is difficult for us and for [SELDC and Landmarks],” and added that they have consulted with the Boston Preservation Alliance who “could confirm the substantial cost of the restoration.”
In addition to the several million dollars that have been spent over the years on the renovation and restoration of the building. Though IBA has not occupied the building since September 20, they have still been paying approximately $14,000 a month to operate the building, including heat, running water, monthly fees for the scaffolding and other utilities. Calderon-Rosado said that does not include the indirect cost of the impact one the programs, as the preschool program, as well as some of the other arts and youth programs have been displaced.
Calderon-Rosado said that IBA would like to demolish the existing building and construct a community arts and education center with office space that “recognizes the past and anticipates the growing needs of our neighborhood and our organization” and would incorporate elements of the old and the new.
Peter Munkenbeck, consultant for IBA, talked a little bit about the damage that the current building suffers. He said that the brick is failing in several places’ and there is severe water damage to the metal beams used for support.
Munkenbeck said that the original scope of plans for the entire envelope of the building was $10.9 million, and they spent $7 million by the time they stopped the project. “In addition to the [$4 million] remaining, we would have to spend $11 million more in addition,” he said, just for the shell of the building—that does not include any interior renovations.
IBA has received two violation notices ordering them to either restore the building or raze it. The SELDC, in order to grant the waiver to demolish the building, has to “discover we have a hardship” and has to determine that the building is non-significant,” Munkenbeck said. Though the violation letter states that the building must either be restored or demolished, in order for the SELDC to accept it, it has to be certified by the Commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department.
“It’s back as of today in ISD’s court,” Munkebeck said.
He said that they have got out to bid for two different builders, have selected one, and have communicated with the ISD “step by step.”
Comments and questions from the community leaned more towards support for the demolition of the building and the construction of a new one, but several neighbors understood the historical significance of the building in the South End.
One neighbor wanted to know if the building could be razed and rebuilt with a replica of key architectural elements. Munkenbeck said that what they historical laws require and what they expect is that “as much as possible of the original will be maintained and kept. There’s not a lot of interest in something that imitates what was there. The authenticity is missing.”
Another asked why IBA just doesn’t sell the building and build a new center elsewhere in the neighborhood. Calderon-Rosado said that she doesn’t believe that they will get a lot of equity from selling the building. “We are committed to this community and preserving affordable housing and creating a community center,” she said. Additionally, she said they are concerned about selling the building to a developer who might building market rate condos. “Since we are an affordable housing developer, we would not want to see the building go to that use,” she said.
Another neighbor commented—and gained a roomful of applause—that the current building is a “money pit and it’s dragging IBA down. Why not take the money to build a purpose-built building?”
“We have gone through different stages of grief as our original intent was not to demolish the building,” Calderon-Rosado said. “We feel that this is a great opportunity to engage the community into something that is really nice, beautiful, and respects the historic fabric of the neighborhood and the [existing] building.”
Another community member wondered whether anything from the current building could be incorporated into a new building. Munkenbeck said that they bought 16 pallets of blond brick when they began the original restoration. Additionally, they have 40 panes of “lovingly restored” multicolored leaded glass, though Munkenbeck said he could to commit that all of it would make it into a new building. There are some other elements that could be saved as well, such as granite stones, the cornerstone with the date and some of the seating.
Greg Galer of the Boston Preservation Association said that the SELDC has “been open to creative solutions,” and “has not been as stringent as they normally are.” They are concerned about precedent in the neighborhood if they allow the building to be demolished. “It’s a slippery slope if you start to allow these things to happen,” he said, adding that he is “not sure if this is the only option” for the building.
Pedro Cruz, a lifelong Villa Victoria resident, said that “Too much of the focus is on preserving the history. We need to focus on creating new history and the impact this new facility will have on the neighborhood 50 years from now.” He said every time he sees new construction in the neighborhood, “it’s not for me” because it’s usually luxury condos that are only affordable for a small portion of the city’s population.
“More space for less money seems like a logical decision,” Cruz said. “I understand there’s more to the conversation,” but as a community member he said he thinks a new space would be beneficial for the whole community.
An attorney for IBA said that “this meeting isn’t the end of us thinking about demolition,” adding that there is a “unique opportunity to both preserve and create something new. We are moving forward with demolishing the structure because it imposes a safety concern. The more and more we wait…the more difficult it becomes to preserve those features that we love.”