Wednesday, January 30, 2008

MHC Calls for BC to Explore Alternatives to Demolition of Three Houses on Foster St

In a letter to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) argues that "alternatives to demolition must be explored" by Boston College for three "historic properties" on Foster Street. The alternatives identified by the MHC "must include rehabilitation and reuse of the Foster Street houses."

In its Institutional Master Plan Notification Form (IMPNF) of December 2007, Boston College proposed to demolish the three houses and build townhouse-style housing on the five-acre site in order to provide 75 beds of housing for Jesuit seminarians, theology graduate students, and faculty of BC's new School of Theology of Ministry. The need for the housing is a result of the re-affiliation of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology with BC in Fall 2008; the WJST is currently located in Cambridge.

The three Foster Street houses date from approximately the 1880's. The houses "display elements of Victorian eclectic style and are fine examples of this period and type of construction," according to the MHC letter. All three houses are identified in the appendix of BC's IMPNF as being listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The letter of January 18, 2008, was written by Brona Simon, Executive Director and State Historic Preservation Office of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and addressed to John Palmieri, Director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. It was written in response to Boston College's Institutional Master Plan Notification Form, which was filed with the BRA on December 5, 2007. Elsewhere in the letter the MHC also requests an "intensive (locational) archaeological survey" at the former St. John's Seminary property and Evergreen Cemetery.

Alternatives to Demolition

The fate of the three houses has been documented previously on the Brighton Centered Blog. I previously suggested that BC consider keeping the houses, which sit on one corner of the lot, and renovate them instead. The houses could be incorporated into the new housing in a manner similar to what Harvard University did for the University Place development in Harvard Square a quarter-century ago. (I also wrote that the topic of housing on that site is a potential minefield for the City Council candidates, due to the large Jewish Orthodox community abutting the site on Portina Road.)

In response to those suggestions to preserve the buildings, Thomas Keady, Jr., Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs at BC, told BostonNOW, "I don't believe that they are [historically significant]. Those three houses will be coming down."

Alternatives to demolition are described in the MHC letter:
The IMP should study alternatives to the demolition of these houses in order to protect and preserve the character-defining elements of the Foster Street area, such as the uniform setbacks of houses, size and scale of residences, and mature vegetation. Alternatives to demolition must be explored and must include rehabilitation and reuse of the Foster Street houses. Rehabilitation alternatives should include additions to the existing houses and/or compatible, adjacent new construction. Feasible alternatives that would preserve and protect the historic properties should be adopted and implemented.
The BC Task Force wrote a letter to Keady on August 25, 2004, in which they asked that BC "consider relinquishing control of the two homes" (owned at the time by BC; the third was purchased in 2006) as a "symbolic act" to the community, thereby allowing the houses to be purchased by Allston-Brighton residents "unable to find housing at an affordable price in this community." (In 2004, BC had not proposed demolishing the houses; in fact, the WJST had not yet announced plans to re-affiliate with BC.)

Should the Upper Foster Street Area Be Listed in the National Register of Historic Places?

The MHC letter goes beyond the three houses to argue that the surrounding neighborhood -- the Upper Foster Street Area, which is part of the MHC's Inventory of Historic and Archaeological Assets -- is a "cohesive collection of late 19th century architectural styles" which the MHC believes "meets the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places."


The MHC letter uses strong language that "alternatives to demolition must be explored" [emphasis added], as well as that "demolition of these historic properties would constitute an adverse effect... through their complete destruction and through the construction of new buildings that are out of scale and character, and would alter the setting of the Foster Street area."

Addressing these concerns will be quite a challenge for BC's proposed use of the site as Jesuit seminarian housing to go forward. The nature of the comments call into question not just the demolition of the houses, but also the setbacks from the street, the "size and scale of residences," and the woods that cover much of the five acre site.

Increasing the setback of the new buildings from the street would decrease the size of the interior courtyard, while reducing the size and scale of the housing would decrease the capacity of the site for housing the Jesuit seminarians, faculty, and theology graduate students in the current proposal.

Some alternate sites exist for housing the seminarians, but BC officials have rejected those suggestions during the past year. St. William's Hall on the former St. John's Seminary property proper housed students for a year who had been displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Capacity for housing in Bishop Peterson Hall (owned by BC) or St. John's Hall (still owned by St. John's Seminary) is unclear.

Without saying so explicitly, the MHC letter makes it clear that preservation of historical properties contained within the former St. John's Seminary land will be vigorously pursued by the at least one state agency.

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