Harriet Tubman House Project Heads to BPDA Board for Consideration

Despite another raucous and chaotic public meeting regarding the Harriet Tubman House project (566 Columbus Ave.) on Dec. 9, the project has advanced to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) Board agenda for consideration on Dec. 12.

There has been some real doubts as to whether or not the project would advance to the BPDA meeting if there was a third unruly meeting, and reports from sources close to the situation said late last week another bad meeting would put the project, and sale, in jeopardy.

After Monday’s meeting, which many described as worse than the previous two meetings, many on both sides were on eggshells about whether it would, or would not, be on the agenda. Getting on the agenda would signal there was a good chance the measure would pass – allowing USES to sell the building – but leaving it off would have been an indication that the project might not have been viable.

Letters campaigns on both sides were quickly organized all morning Tuesday in advance of the 2 p.m. release of the Board agenda. And at 2 p.m., the matter appeared on the agenda, signaling a win for USES in the short term.

The project will redevelop the site at 566 Columbus Ave. into a six-story, mixed-use commercial and residential building with 5,000 square feet of commercial space including a social enterprise cafe with outdoor seating, an art exhibit gallery, and deeded community space for United South End Settlements (USES), the current owner of the building.

Additionally, the project includes 66 residential units, 11 of which would be artist live/work spaces, as well as 42 below-grade parking spaces. Most of the project is by right, meaning it will not have to go through the traditional Article 80 public review process.

The meeting on Monday night saw a room packed with supporters of the project wearing red USES t-shirts, as well as a large group representing those opposed to the project—many from non-profits who would have to move to another location should this project commence. Those opposed also shouted chants of “We are Harriet, not for sale!” in support of the historical significance of the building in the South End.

Shouting and chanting went on for more than two hours from both sides, while the BPDA conducted the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) meeting in the background, with few paying any attention to it. USES solicited comments from its supporters and urged them to provide them to the BPDA by mouth at the meeting or in writing on sheets that were passed around the room.

Despite the uproar at meetings, there is support from the community from elected officials like Rep. Jon Santiago and City Councilor Kim Janey, who wrote a statement of support that was published in the Boston Herald week, and in this week’s edition of the Boston Sun.

Dot Joyce, a consultant for the project’s designated developer, New Boston Ventures, said this is “less about the sale of a property and more about saving services for people who need them.” USES provides services, including affordable daycare, for more than 350 children in the community, and without the sale of this building, the organization would cease to exist.

The sale of the building “will allow [USES] to increase that capacity as well as continue services into the future,” Joyce said.

The project is as-of right, which means it does not require Zoning Commission approval or a public hearing in front of the BPDA.  Should the project be approved by the BPDA on Thursday, the project proponents would move ahead with the next steps, which include securing permits for construction from the Inspectional Services Department.

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