The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) held a special hearing on December 17 regarding the proposed demolition of the former church and parish house at 85 West Newton St., which is home to the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts and IBA Preschool.
The project came before the Commission last month with a proposal to demolish the building, as IBA said they were told by the city that the building must be vacated after determining it was unsafe. IBA’s original plan was to save the building and fix the parts that were deteriorated, but in the process of doing so it was discovered that the damage was worse than anticipated. The SELDC chose to continue the project without making any votes at the November hearing, as they wanted the team to come up with alternatives to demolition in order to save the historic building.
At the special hearing in December, the only item up for a decision from the SELDC was an application for a certificate of exemption, which, if granted by the commission, would prevent them from having any jurisdiction over what happens to the building.
SELDC member John Amodeo said that the purpose of this hearing was to gather more information to understand the process that this building is going through with the Inspectional Services Department (ISD). According to Amodeo, a certificate of exemption could be approved by the Commission based on ISD certification, financial hardship, and also has to meet the criteria of “not adversely impacting a series of values” within the district.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, Executive Director of IBA, said on Tuesday night that after exploring several options, “the most beneficial option” is to raze the current structure and build a new one. She said that this would be the most cost-effective solution and would allow IBA to expand their space for their programs, as well as activate the street. She said constructing a new building that respects the historic character of the old one and of the district would be beneficial for both IBA and the neighborhood.
“This has not been an easy process,” Calderon-Rosado said. “It was a conclusion that took a good amount of grief to reach. ISD had become increasingly concerned about the conditions of the building.”
Peter Munkenbeck, consultant to IBA, said that “the path we think we’re on is the necessity.” He said that IBA received a revised violation notice this week that said they were given two choices: either restore the parts that need fixing, or demolish the building.
“IBA has been clear since our initial application that the building is divided into two: parts that were impossible to restore and the ones that are theoretically possible to restore.”
He said that due to financial constraints, IBA is choosing to demolish the building, and requested that the SELDC approve a certification of exemption.
“We appreciate that IBA
has been a responsible steward of many of the historical structures in the
district,” said Amodeo. “You have cooperated with our commission. We also know
you provide important community services in the neighborhood that go beyond the
boundaries of the district.”
However, Amodeo said the Commission’s job is to follow the guidelines and preserve the historical integrity of the district. “This is a difficult position for you, and a difficult position for us,” he said. “We have to be very careful because demolition is irreversible and permanent. This is a serious impact in a landmarked district and not something we can ever take lightly.”
He said that the Commission has received information from the ISD saying that the application is in violation, but there are also “alternatives to demolition that would remediate the violation. Demolition is only one of the two choices. There isn’t enough in my opinion to approve a certificate of exemption.”
He said that in order to release a historic building within the district, the commission needs to be “absolutely sure” that it meets the criteria for a certificate of exemption.
It’s pretty clear that we’re highly reluctant” to “voluntarily make a motion that’s conditioned upon an action by another agency,” SELDC member Peter Sanborn said, referring to the ISD. “We don’t want to—as sympathetic as we may be—voluntarily approve a certificate of exemption. We understand we may be forced to if ISD makes a certification.”
SELDC member Catherine Hunt agreed that the Commission has sympathy for IBA, but “we are bound by the guidelines, though,” she said. She said that given the importance of the history of churches in the district, the references to the architect, and the population that the church historically served, “I have to concede that it does not meet the requirement for demolition because of the impact the removal would have on the district.”
Per the applicants’ request, the Commission voted to continue the application to the January 7 hearing. No vote was made on the application for the certification of exemption.