Arboretum plans are still controversial

September 7, 2007
By

John Ruch

JAMAICA HILLS—Arnold Arboretum’s expansion plan was approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) last month. But it is still drawing controversy from local residents who say the approval was rushed and some details were left unexamined.

The main worries are possible loopholes in a deed restriction preventing future arboretum expansion on a large section of land, and the fate of the recently landmarked but vacant Lewis-Dawson Farmhouse.

The BRA has allowed a 30-day comment period, running until Sept. 14, on the project before its approval takes effect.

“We and a number of neighbors over here have continuing concerns,” said Frank O’Brien of Roslindale’s Weld Hill Woodlands Task Force. He said his group formed to examine the arboretum expansion after a BRA-formed resident task force stopped meeting for unexplained reasons in May, 2006.

Kevin McCluskey, a spokesperson for Harvard University, which operates the arboretum, did not return a phone call for this article by press time.

On Aug. 14, the BRA board of directors voted to approve the arboretum’s plans for a new 45,000-square-foot, $38 million Research and Administration Building on Weld Hill, a section of the arboretum on the Jamaica Plain-Roslindale border. The board also approved an Institution Master Plan (IMP) laying out the arboretum’s expansion plans for the next decade, with the proposed building being the only such item.

In response to community concerns, Harvard agreed in recent months not to construct new buildings or surface parking on a large section of Weld Hill for at least 875 years. That promise will be written into a deed restriction on the land.

But, activists complain, the BRA board vote approved the deed restriction even though it is still not complete.

BRA spokesperson Lucy Warsh said it is “not unusual” for the board to approve an unfinished document with the understanding that BRA staff will finish off the details later. She noted that the board reviewed a draft of the deed restriction.

“At the [BRA board] meeting, several people expressed concern there hadn’t been enough time for public comment,” Warsh acknowledged.

In response to those concerns, the BRA board established a 30-day waiting period for its approval to take effect, during which public comments are being accepted. Requests from residents at the meeting for the vote to be deferred until this month were denied.

Residents were not involved in crafting the deed restriction language, according to Warsh. “The BRA negotiated with Harvard directly,” she said.

In an Aug. 21 letter to the BRA, Roslindale’s Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association (LANA) complained that residents only got to see a draft of the deed restriction four days before the BRA vote.

“It took our lawyer to do the Heimlich maneuver to get them to cough it up,” O’Brien said. “The community had no way of intervening.”

Residents were concerned not only about process, but about content, once they finally saw the deed restriction. The LANA letter cited a variety of possible technical loopholes through which the arboretum might be able to expand in the future anyway.

The letter noted the similar neighborhood experience with the adjacent Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, which slowly swallowed the former Joyce Kilmer Park despite expansion restrictions.

“We’ve actually hired an attorney for possible legal action,” O’Brien said. “We haven’t ruled that out.” He added that the task force hopes to address concerns about the deed restriction in a less confrontational way in a meeting with Harvard officials.

Farmhouse

O’Brien said his group is also interested in how the IMP addresses “environmental sustainability,” which includes reusing existing buildings instead of building new ones.

That includes the farmhouse at 1090 Centre St., which the arboretum once proposed demolishing before it was landmarked. Controversially, the arboretum is proposing no reuse for at least 10 years, raising concerns of “demolition by neglect.” Mayor Thomas Menino, the Boston City Council and many local activists have urged the reuse of the building.

The IMP does address environmental issues and building reuse in many ways. The new building is planned to conform to the hillside landscape and aims to meet LEED Silver ranking, a construction industry standard for environmental friendliness.

The IMP includes a 2004 study for reuse of the farmhouse, which found that it would be feasible to turn it into offices. However, that does not match the arboretum’s plans to centralize its facilities. Instead, the arboretum proposed tearing down the house and putting an equipment barn on the site.

Community outrage led to the farmhouse being landmarked, meaning it cannot be demolished or altered without city approval. It also cannot be allowed to fall apart. Preservationists generally agree that reusing a vacant building is the best way to save it.

The IMP notes that Harvard has no plans for the building, which will be “mothballed” according to federal guidelines. However, mothballing is supposed to be a short-term solution under those guidelines.

Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA), said that her group sent the BRA a letter that “stated very clearly we didn’t want approval of the IMP until the farmhouse is addressed.”

“They didn’t set up specific objectives for the farmhouse,” Kelly said. “It’s less of a plan and more of an acknowledgment or listing.”

“It’s unbelievable to us that a vacant farmhouse that could be used for offices isn’t part of the expansion [plan],” O’Brien said.

“The city would like to see them put the building back into active use perhaps sometime in the future, but we do not have the ability to force them to do so,” Warsh said.

O’Brien complained that the IMP also does not address possible reuse of nearby properties, including the former and still vacant Boy Scouts of America building on the Arborway and some vacant land at the State Lab site on South Street next to the arboretum.

The aboretum did express strong interest in the Boy Scouts building in 2004 as a possible temporary home for its Landscape Institute program. However, that plan was dependent on the program eventually relocating to an expanded Hunnewell Building, the arboretum’s current main administrative building.

But community opposition shot down a Hunnewell Building expansion for at least the next decade, and the arboretum backed away from acquiring the Boy Scouts building.

The use of State Lab land appears never to have been examined, though the current director of the State Lab previously told the Gazette that the lab may one day expand.

Public comments can be sent to BRA project manager Gerald Autler at Gerald.Autler.BRA@cityofboston.gov or BRA, Boston City Hall, 9th Floor, One City Hall Square, Boston, MA 02201.

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