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Neighbors clash over housing sale

Landmark designation bid may block deal

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Neighbors clash over housing sale
Owners seek to sell Highland Park’s 88 Lambert Avenue, but neighbors say they distrust the buyer. Now the city is examining the property to see if it deserves “landmark” status. (Photo: Banner photo)

Highland Park’s 88 Lambert Avenue has become the center of a heated dispute. The owners are longtime community members who seek to downsize by selling the property. Their efforts were stalled when a group of neighbors petitioned the city, stating concern that a new buyer might remove historic structures. Now the Boston Landmarks Commission has declared interest in the site, preventing any demolition during a waiting period.

Owner Robert Patton-Spruill proposes including a deed restriction protecting the property’s mansion, while allowing the brick garages to be demolished to clear space for new housing units.

The site went on the market in the fall of 2016 with a $2.9 million asking price. This year, the owners accepted a developer’s offer with the sale still unclosed by Banner press time on Tuesday. But news of the plan alarmed several local residents who say they believe the would-be purchaser has a bad track record. These residents said they fear the developer could downgrade quality of life by crowding in too many new units on the 0.6-acre lot or that he might demolish an 18th-century mansion.

“I appreciate it’s his [the owner’s] piece of property, but we have to live with it when he’s gone,” neighbor Rodney Singleton told the Banner. “He’s ultimately trying to get the best sales price [by building it up].”

Meanwhile, Robert Patton-Spruill, who owns the property with his wife, says personal financial circumstances make selling soon imperative. He said he has been trying to work with neighbors to enact some protective regulations in advance of selling that would restrict the site’s use.

The extensive property features an 18th-century seven-bedroom mansion, garages, a carriage house and two small ponds. It was once the home of Henry Hampton, the founder of the film production company Blackside, known for works such as “Eyes on the Prize,” an award-winning civil rights movement documentary series.

After an Aug. 22 meeting, the Boston Landmarks Commission approved a demolition delay. Patton-Spruill says this means he is blocked from making changes to any part of the property, not just the mansion, while the research is conducted to determine if any of the site is historically significant.

By rendering the property temporarily undevelopable, the Landmarks Commission delay could scare off his selected buyer and thus essentially lock away all the money he invested in his property, he says.

“That means at least three more months I have to carry a building I can’t afford to live in,” Patton-Spruill told the Banner “I have lost my freedoms of ownership completely. I can’t replace a window without their approval first.”

Mistrusted developer

Patton-Spruill told the Banner that he had received offers from dozens of prospective buyers, and had accepted an offer from developer Joe LaRosa. Speaking to the Banner on Tuesday, he said the deal had been made prior to the Landmark Commission’s delay and he suspected it would now fall through.

Some community residents opposed the sale because they mistrusted the property’s future under LaRosa. Area resident Jon Ellertson says LaRosa has a reputation for making low-quality, densely-packed housing and disregarding community concerns.

“He’s shown no interest in preservation, only interest in building as many densely-designed low-quality houses as he can,” Ellertson said. “It’d make a big difference if the buyer was one whose track record was of working with a particular community to see what the community’s vision is for the property. “

Ellertson says that LaRosa bulldozed a nearby Greek revival house after promising to preserve it. Another nearby LaRosa property has become home to loud, late-night student parties that it sometimes require police interventions to shut down, Ellertson added.

Singleton expressed similar wariness on allowing LaRosa to own 88 Lambert Avenue.

“It is a valuable piece of history that should not be torn down,” Singleton said. “In the hands of Joe LaRosa, we have no confidence in anything.”

Patton-Spruill told the Banner on Tuesday that he selected LaRosa because he was the only prospective purchaser willing to build “as of right” — that is, not seek zoning variance. As such, LaRosa would be limited to constructing a lower number of units on the property.

“LaRosa was the only one willing to buy as of right and not over-build,” Patton-Spruill said. “That’s why he was the final choice.”

Singleton provided the Banner with a series of emails from this April on which he was cc’d. According to the email exchange, Ellertson told Patton-Spruill he was concerned about LaRosa, stating “We have for the record seen Joe LaRosa say one thing for the public record and do the opposite.”

In the emails, Patton-Spruill responded that he understood the wariness toward LaRosa but that the developer’s offer allowed him to shed the costs of a large house and acquire sufficient funding to move his grandmother into assisted living on a desirable timeline.

“We understand why there is a lack of trust with him [LaRosa],” Patton-Spruill stated in an April 24 email. “We have honestly done our best in getting the property shown to everyone that was interested and able to make a purchase of this size.”

In an earlier email also on April 24, Patton-Spruill stated, “I am aware of the communities [sic] problem with him and I wish he wasn’t the one to step up to the plate, but he does have the best offer and is willing to allow me … to get my grandmother situated in a new spot.”

Patton-Spruill told the Banner he intended a deed restriction to protect the mansion house from demolition. In one April 24 email, he stated he told LaRosa he would “need to make a plan to keep the Big House and rebuild the barn,” and that “he [LaRosa] seems open to it.”

Unwanted density

Patton-Spruill said he wanted to protect against overcrowding of units onto the site by seeking an as-of-right developer. He anticipated six units would be permitted under current zoning, should the site’s garages be demolished.

Patton-Spruill told the Banner he had presented various plans over the years, that included higher unit counts. Some residents said they believe as many as 14 units are intended for the site.

“I wish Robert Patton-Spruill all best — I’d love for him to make all the money he can on his property — however, to suggest taking a site with a single and opening it up to where someone could put 14 townhouses there is not something the neighborhood could warm up to,” abutter Daniel Cruz told the Banner.

Ellertson said that he has not seen site plans but doubts six units could fit with sufficient off-street parking and setback allocations. Singleton also said he regards six units as overbuilding and that he does not believe the mansion will be safe from demolition.

Patton-Spruill told the Banner he presented his vision in a community meeting on Aug. 18. He said 15 people attended, of whom ten remained to vote on the proposal. At the end of the meeting, 9 people voted in favor of a plan to demolish the brick garages while maintaining the wood frame carriage house, and one person abstained.

Four days later, during a meeting with the Landmarks Commission, residents called for historic investigation, thus halting and potentially derailing his proposal. A petition initiating such a meeting required signatures of ten registered Boston voters.

An investment seized away?

Patton-Spruill told the Banner that for decades he invested the profits from his filmmaking into purchasing and rehabilitating boarded up degraded houses in the area, in order to help improve safety and life in the neighborhood. He and his wife, Patti Moreno, were awarded Discover Roxbury’s Puddingstone Awards in 2015 for helping preserve the neighborhood. Patton-Spruill says when he bought 88 Lambert Avenue in 2002 it was run down and a site of some illegal activity.

“88 Lambert Ave was a wonderful property, but absolutely no money had been spent on maintenance and care of it,” he said. “I spent a million dollars preserving it and now, because it looks so nice because I spent so much on it, they say it’s a landmark.”

Now that his kids are in college, his parents have passed away, and his grandmother needs to move into assisted living, Patton-Spruill said the house is too big and too expensive to maintain and that he needs to tap into this asset to afford assisted living for his grandmother.

He says he feels blindsided at being subjected to a historical preservation bid as a homeowner outside of a historic district, and regards the bid as misguided.

“They’ve effectively put me in a position where without working my behind off and struggling, I could easily go bankrupt because my largest asset doesn’t have a title anymore,” Patton-Spruill said.

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