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Bright plans for Freedom House

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Bright plans for Freedom House
Rendering of new Freedom House building. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Dream Collaborative)

This year, Freedom House plans to revitalize the Grove Hall library branch into an updated and permanent home, a move that will bring the community more programs and resources.

In 2013, after its longtime site at 14 Crawford Street sustained water damage, Freedom House moved operations into then-vacant former Grove Hall library at the corner of Crawford Street and Warren Street, CEO Katrina Shaw recalled recently. The organization quickly made fixes to the former library branch to bring it up to code and support the necessary technology for its programming.

Now Freedom House — which leased the space on temporary basis — looks to make bigger changes and a permanent home. The Department of Neighborhood Development tentatively designated the organization as developers of the site and Shaw says construction is slated to begin in March, with completion by the year’s end.

Community’s house

The Freedom House has a long history in Roxbury of working to promote civil rights and advocacy and educational opportunity. In 2012, its board chose to concentrate efforts on promoting academic achievement for low-income, minority and immigrant youth.

Sheila Dillon, chief and director of the DND, said the department’s request for proposals sought a developer that would bring benefit to the larger community.

“We heard the community say they really wanted these [former] libraries to retain their public use and public benefit and develop in a way so the larger community benefits,” she said.

Planned renovations to the Grove Hall library include features to allow for more simultaneous programming, improved aesthetics and greater accessibility for those with disabilities.

Shaw said Janey Company will handle construction, DREAM Collaborative will be the architects and Chris Shepard and Kariem Van Leesten IV will be the project managers. Schematics and designs have been prepared, she said.

Multipurpose uses

The former library provides one large open space — a design feature that limits number of programs that can happen at a time, Shaw said.

Plans call for creating more meeting rooms, staff offices and classrooms, while incorporating glass elements to preserve a sense of openness, Shaw said. The administration also intends to use features like moveable walls so that the space remains flexible for varied purposes.

“[We want to have] more spaces to have confidential conversations with families, while at the same time a computer class is going on next door and at the same time, a class for students trying to recover precalculus credits,” she said.

Freedom House plans to add a second computer lab to allow simultaneous use by students’ classes and individual residents. Further changes include updating bathrooms to be more accessible to people with disabilities, outdoor landscaping and a new entrance ramp.

Extra features

According to the DND, the project’s projected cost is $1.8 million. Shaw said the original budget was $1.5 million, but that Freedom House seeks $500,000 – $600,000 more to create further design enhancements.

Enhancements include converting portions of the primarily concrete building exterior to glass, inserting further modular elements to make the space flexible and adding visuals — such as college banners and murals related to higher education.

“[Elements could] visually represent the colleges that we work with so that students, when they’re coming here, have a reminder of the possibilities for them,” Shaw said. Anyone walking through the neighborhood would see this reminder as well, she added. “It’s part of creating a mindset of life beyond high school.”

Currently Freedom House has raised $1.5 million toward renovations. Funding sources include a MassDevelopment grant and grants from organizations such as Blue Hills Bank, Bank of America, State Street, Liberty Mutual and the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund.

To afford the additional features, Freedom House is looking for more grants as well as support from local businesses and residents.

Fate of a former home

While phase 1 of Freedom House’s strategic planning involves developing the library building, phase 2 is deciding what to do with the 14 Crawford Street site. It remains unused other than as a place to store some historical items. Freedom House continues to maintain the interior and exterior, Shaw said.

From a financial perspective, sprucing up 14 Crawford remains daunting.

“It’s cheaper to knock it down than it would be to renovate,” Shaw admitted. When she joined Freedom House in 2012, administrators estimated they would have to raise $4.5 million to renovate 14 Crawford. The need to move came sooner than any such funding.

But the old site holds the most memories, because it is where many residents visited over the years. According to archives, visitors included luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, Shaw said.

Due to the historical significance and sentimental value to the community, Shaw said that members of Freedom House’s board have been meeting with local residents to explore best uses for the building. The city’s DND helped extend outreach, sending mailings to residents in the surrounding area.

Ideas include using 14 Crawford as a second Freedom House campus, renting it to a suitable organization and partnering with another group to offer services there. Some schools and charitable housing organizations already have approached with partnership proposals.

One condition of any partnership: Part of the property must remain available to the community, in particular the auditorium — a resource the Grove Hall library building does not have.

Full circle

All the businesses working on the renovations are owned by people of color and have ties in the local community, Shaw said. Some collaborators even have been part of the Freedom House community. Greg Janey, president of the company handling construction, attended as a student to figure out college applications, Shaw said.

The collaborators show current students where they might go later in life.

“As the building is going up, it’s also a reflection of our young people of their own possibilities embedded in all of the folks who are working on the space,” Shaw said.

Other former library sites are being redeveloped for community use. The Mattapan library was converted to a teen center run by the Boys and Girls Club and the Meridian Street Library in East Boston will become a cultural and social service center.

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