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Coalition challenges Tubman House sale

South end urban renewal plan called for social services building on parcel

Saraya Wintersmith, WGBH News
Coalition challenges Tubman House sale
A developer is seeking to build condos on the site of the Harriet Tubman House. BANNER PHOTO

Opponents of a plan to redevelop the Harriet Tubman House as condos are pointing to deed restrictions on the South End building and calling for the proposal to be scrapped. The neighborhood’s urban renewal plan limits the use of the property to “offices and recreation.”

“Nonprofits need this space to do their events and house their services,” said Arnesse Brown, corporate relations manager of the Tenants Development Corporation. The nonprofit is one of six housed in the Tubman House and one of two resisting the building’s sale.

“It would be a dishonor to turn the building into condos,” she said.

Brown is one of the people behind a growing coalition publicly opposing the sale, and said she is planning to advocate for preserving the building’s current use as a community center.

The South End Urban Renewal Plan that restricts the building’s use was adopted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, now the BPDA, and approved by the Boston City Council in 1965. Under its amended terms, United South End Settlements (USES), a historic, neighborhood-based social services organization, was designated to develop the Tubman House “for the construction and operation of a community facility to meet the needs of the residents in the Lower Roxbury section of the South End.” The property’s deed contains a clause barring USES and its successors from using or devoting the property “or any part thereof for any use other than the said permitted uses.”

However, the board of the successor Boston Planning and Development Agency can change the permissible uses. Opponents have insisted the proposal to demolish the 1975 building for a condo tower, which is now set to undergo the required public review before the BPDA, should not be allowed to move forward.

The struggle over the South End building’s future is a familiar one as Boston’s real estate market booms, and nonprofits struggle to pay for office space, serve communities, and sustain themselves amid the changing economy. The Tubman House has moved twice before under similar circumstances. It had two addresses on Holyoke Street before its current home at the busy corner of Columbus and Massachusetts Avenues.

Maicharia Weir Lytle, president and CEO of USES, said the move to sell the building has been made carefully amid other changes. Although the organization was born through the merger of five settlement houses and has long served children, the elderly and adults through multiple programs, it recently narrowed its focus to disrupting the cycle of poverty for children and their families.

“Our decision to sell the Tubman House really dates back to a couple of years ago, when the organization went through a strategic planning process as well as a real estate feasibility process,” Weir Lytle, 45, said. With a new, two-generation service mission defined, the group then looked at how they could best fulfill it.

Weir Lytle said the current overhead costs for four properties run an unsustainable $700,000 a year. Consolidation would yield savings. “So we knew early on that we would probably make a decision about selling a piece of real estate,” Weir Lytle explained. She estimated the sale would generate $13 million to $19 million for USES.

“It was a very painful decision in many ways, because it was a letting go,” she said, “and it was actually Frieda Garcia who saw what we could possibly do here and said, ‘So you’re building the new Harriet Tubman House,’ and I said, ‘We’re keeping the legacy alive. It’s really important to this organization, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.’”

Garcia, who directed USES from 1981 to 2001, said it’s not an easy thing to sell a beloved place.

“I spent the best years of my working life in that building,” she said during a phone interview with WGBH News, “but I also recognize that it’s time.”

According to plans from developer New Boston Ventures, a six-story building with 66 units of condos would sprout up in place of the Tubman House. The new construction would feature 17 percent affordable units — more than the city’s required 13 percent — as well as space on the ground floor for nonprofits, community meetings and the USES’ Harriet Tubman Gallery.

New Boston Ventures principal David Goldman told WGBH News many of the community benefits were made after meeting with public figures of the South End. The firm has also offered assistance to the Tubman House’s current nonprofit tenants, taking care of moving expenses and temporarily subsidizing new rents.

“We don’t want to see the any of the nonprofits get hurt in any way,” Goldman said in a phone interview.

Jovita Fontanez, a South-Ender and community liaison for the New Boston Ventures proposal, called feelings about the proposal complex. At a recent meeting of opponents, she was asked by a friend to leave because of her position with the developer. Her expulsion underscores the potentially contentious nature of such development in tight-knit communities like the South End and Lower Roxbury. Fontanez said she’s put it behind her and is focusing on advocating for USES and the building sale.

“There’s a lot of nonprofits having a hard time, financially,” she said. “Thank God that USES has another property they can go to.”

The Tubman House is located in the district of Councilor Kim Janey. In a phone interview with WGBH News, she characterized the sale as “sad,” but stopped short of opposing or endorsing the current proposal.

“I remember when this building was built,” she said. “For many, it is the last in the South End before gentrification that people of color can look to.” Janey said moving forward, it’s important the development team be responsive and work with residents to ensure the community is incorporated into the design.

Meanwhile, others, like former South End resident Curdina Hill, say they definitely plan to advocate for a new proposal.

“[USES] needs to sell it [to] buyers who intend to use it for its original, intended purpose,” said Hill, 75, who once worked for the domestic violence nonprofit Casa Myrna Vazquez, Inc. She said she’s not swayed by any of the community benefits outlined in the developer’s plan for the Tubman House.

“A lot of us remember a boarded-up neighborhood,” said David Wright, executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston. Wright, a Boston native, said the Tubman House is akin to a public community center: “People in the community raised money to help build this building, and it’s a beacon of people who survived darker times in the South End.”

Ricardo P. Louis, a leader of United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury, pointed to the help that his fledgling valet business received through the Harriet Tubman House several years ago and said the Tubman House has added value as an incubation hub for nonprofits and other minority business ventures.

“That right there just shows me how powerful this community center was to help a young minority company grow within the South End,” he said. “I don’t want to see the Harriet Tubman House just go away and be turned into housing that doesn’t benefit the community, because if it wasn’t for that establishment, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I am today.”

Saraya Wintersmith covers Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury for WGBH News.

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