SELDC Grants Mandatory Certificate of Exemption to Villa Victoria Center for the Arts

The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC), against their wishes, granted a Certificate of Exemption on August 4 to raze the former church and parish house at 85 West Newton St., home of the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts.

This project has come before the Commission several times, and several community meetings have been held regarding the building. The building is owned by Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA), which provides education, arts programs, affordable housing, and more to the community.

The Commission’s goal (and IBA’s original goal) was to save the building, but IBA has repeatedly stated that their only option is to demolish it and build anew, and on August 4, the organization formally requested a Certificate of Exemption from the SELDC.

“This has been a long and hard process for all of us,” IBA CEO Vanessa Calderon-Rosado said at the hearing on Tuesday night. She thanked the Commission for their work and engagement during this process.

“The building at 85 West Newton played a critical role to IBA,” she said, as it was home to many of IBA’s programs and functioned as a community center. Issues with this building have been going on for quite some time, as the historic church was not properly taken care of over the years.

Peter Munkenbeck, IBA’s development consultant, explained that in 2016, IBA embarked on a mission to restore the historic church and make it safe and usable for years to come. The project was to be done in two phases, beginning with the building envelope.

The SELDC had approved the scope of work for Phase One, and in the fall of 2017, Shawmut Design and Construction was awarded a nearly $11 million contract to carry out the Phase One work, Munkenbeck said.

During the initial weeks of work, it was discovered that the basic structure of the bell tower was not sound, and many other structural issues were discovered, deeming the building unsafe.

The project team has returned to the SELDC several times with photos and letters from engineers stating the building is unsafe.

In September of last year, the City condemned the building and IBA was told to evacuate the as it was unfit to be occupied.

In December, IBA received a violation notice from the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department (ISD) stating that IBA’s only two options were to restore the building or to demolish it.    

IBA has stood by the position that their only option would be to demolish the building and build a new one, as restoring the existing church would cost double the original budget and there weren’t enough funds to cover the additional costs.

Back in December, the Commission had asked the project team to come up with alternatives to demolishing the building, as they would rather see it preserved. While the Commissioners expressed their understanding for the budgetary limitations of IBA, an organization that provides so much to the South End community, they stood firm in their mission to follow the guidelines and make sure the historical district is preserved.

As the Sun reported in December, Commissioner John Amodeo told the team that in order for the Commission to release its purview over a historical building in the district, it needs to be “absolutely sure” that criteria are met to issue the Certificate of Exemption.  

At the August 4 hearing, Munkenbeck discussed the most recent notice from ISD which he said stated that there were “no options…other than to demolish” the building.

Amodeo asked why the parish house was included in the ISD letter, as it is not in the same situation as the rest of the building.

Munkenbeck said that ISD “regarded it to be as one building.” He also said that “the massive wall which supports the roof of the church on one side is sort of compromised,” and “on the other side is a party wall from the parish house.”

Commissioner Catherine Hunt agreed with Amodeo: “the parish house is certainly not in the same dire straits as the rest of the building.

The Commission has gone through several steps to ensure this outcome was the only one available, and had the protocol reviewed. Amodeo said that the City of Boston law department advised the Commission on this issue, and they came to the conclusion that “if the applicant presented a violation from ISD that was certified that demolition was the only alternative, then we are required to provide a Certificate of Exemption,” he said. “That is not to say we approve the demolition of the building, but they are exempt from our review.”

Commissioner John Freeman clarified that the demolition would be exempt from SELDC review, but any new building proposed for the site would absolutely be subject to review by the Commission.

Amodeo said that the Commission did not feel they had appropriate documentation at past hearings, because previous ISD notices said that the two choices were to either repair the building or demolish it.

“Staff has determined this certificate meets the requirements of a mandatory certificate of exemption,” said Preservation Planner Mary Cirbus.

“Despite the fact that we seem to have no choice in the matter…this is very disappointing,” Commissioner Hunt said. “I’m not happy about it at all as a member of this Commission that is here to protect historic structures. I think it’s a darn shame that we got to this point after 40 years that nothing was done to maintain that building, and now we are in this situation.”

Other Commissioners agreed, and Commissioner David Shepperd wondered if any materials from the existing building could be salvaged to use in the new building.

Munkenbeck said things like stained glass, several of the pews, railings, and pallets of blond brick have been saved and they are intending on incorporating them into the new design.

 Shepperd also asked why the Commission shouldn’t just vote to demolish the building, because that way, they would have a say in what happens with the demolition.

Freeman responded by saying that the “reasons to not demolish are still in effect.” He said the only thing that has changed from the point of view of the Commission is that “…we have this mandatory exemption.”

Freeman added that he would like to see an inventory of what has been salvaged from the existing building, and Amodeo suggested some sort of public display for the new building that would provide information on the historic church.

“This building is one of a kind,” Amodeo said. “The documentation and an exhibit utilizing some of the key examples of that documentation would be really important just to inform people of the district.”

While that cannot be made into an official motion because of the request for a Certificate of Exemption, the Commission strongly urged the project team to consider something like that, but it will be further discussed once a new building is proposed and brought before the Commission.

Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said that it is “unfortunate” that ISD was not at the hearing to address questions and concerns.

He said the situation with this building is “a sign that we need to do a better job of taking care of our historic buildings. This is an important lesson to learn.”

He accused IBA of not having a “desire” to come to a resolution on the restoration and that IBA “waited it out and allowed continued deterioration.” He added that there is a need to “push harder on remedies that don’t require absolute demolition. I think this is terrible precedent and I urge the Commission to keep their hand on the level to drive review of the replacement. Our biggest fear is that other organizations that have challenges with historic buildings” will end up in the same situation, he said.

 “This process has been very difficult for us,” Calderon-Rosado responded. “We have taken this process with respect and with the original goal of restoring the building before we found out the conditions of the building.” She added that “we look forward to working with you on the replacement of this building,” referring to the Commission. Cirbus reported that the SELDC received 36 letters of support for IBA, and the Commission unanimously voted to grant the mandatory Certificate of Exemption, with Hunt responding yes “only because we have no choice.”

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