Station to Station

October 5, 2007
By

JOHN SWAN


Photo Courtesy A.J. Martini construction company
The former MBTA power station on Washington Street in 1970s. It’s getting ready for new owners BNN Television

Access TV ready to move into renovated electric plant

EGLESTON SQ.—The lower Egleston Square area is feeling a surge of energy as Boston Neighborhood Network Television (BNN) prepares to move into its new facility—the former MBTA power station at 3025 Washington St.

“It’s exciting after working on one side of Egleston for so long to now be ready to turn on the switch and activate the other side of the square,” said Noah Maslan, director of real estate for developer Urban Edge, a local community development corporation.

BNN General Manager Curtis Henderson, a longtime JP resident, said moving to Egleston Square in late November will provide “a huge resource… and a building block to the revitalization of the neighborhood.

“It’s a beautifully restored historic building, close to the Orange Line, that will complement Urban Edge’s new [Egleston Crossing] housing complex next door,” he said, adding that the state-of-the-art facility will also offer area youths, adults and seniors digital media training as a “pathway to the global workforce.”

“I’m delighted BNN is moving in,” said Clarissa Quintanilla, executive director of Egleston Square Main Streets. “I know they really care about the community. Curtis is on our board and recognizes Egleston Square has a lot to offer. I hope their arrival is followed by other businesses and organizations.”

She said BNN will be a welcome adjunct to current youth agencies like the YMCA and Greater Egleston Community High School. She also noted that the non-profit 826 Boston will soon open a writing and tutoring center close-by with a retail storefront “selling lots of cool stuff.” [See related article.]

Founded 23 years ago, BNN operates two public access cable TV channels (9 and 23 on Verizon, 15 and 83 on RCN) broadcasting neighborhood news, interactive call-in programs and community service shows.

“Not a lot of other TV stations do narrow-casting that targets specific constituents and highlights local organizations like us,” Henderson said, pointing out that BNN is the only place residents of all cultures can learn to broadcast their own productions, adding more voices to diverse conversation that makes up this city.

Henderson said consolidating the various sites they rent into one main facility will help reduce operating costs and allow BNN to expand outreach, like partnering with Boston Center for Youth and Families and setting up small satellite facilities in neighborhoods where field personnel can send video files directly to the main office.

One of the most challenging aspects of the renovation was the amount of green technology Urban Edge used.

“We’re interested in green construction in all our projects, but it’s not common to get [LEED Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified [by the U.S. Green Building Council] on historic buildings like this because of the inherent limitations of the basic architecture,” said Maslan.

Two 1,300-foot wells provide water at a 67-degree constant temperature, cutting heating and cooling costs in half.

Other innovations include low-flow water fixtures, high efficiency lighting with motion sensors, building material made from recycled products, urea formaldehyde-free wood, and recycling 75 percent of all construction trash.

In all, the green technology should reduce operating costs by 30 percent compared to conventional buildings, Maslan said.
History redux

But, Maslan pointed out, the biggest ecological savings come from reusing the existing structure.

Built in 1909 to convert AC power to DC, the substation resembles an early Renaissance basilica and now is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The historical importance of the city’s transit system was highlighted in a report by the Boston section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, saying, “Electric traction for large cities was first developed in Boston by the West End Street Railway Company… As a result of the company’s pioneering efforts, large integrated mass transit systems took a foothold nationwide.”

By 1887, a fleet of 9,000 horses had been replaced with over 600 electric streetcars. By 1904 the company changed its name to Boston Elevated Railway Company, predecessor of the MBTA, running over 3,000 cars on 421 miles of tramway tracks and 174 cars on 16 miles of elevated tracks.

The Egleston substation was a prototype with three 1,000-kilowatt rotary converters. In 1984, a Boston Landmarks Commission survey reported the power station “may be the longest-operating substation for rapid transit in America.”

The MBTA retired the facility in 1986, and since then it has sat vacant and deteriorating.

“We had been trying to get control of [the building] for years, but the T told us they wouldn’t put it on their surplus list,” said Maslan. When BNN began looking for a prominent location, their partnership with Urban Edge convinced the MBTA to sell the property, he explained.

“It took a lot of cleanup. There were five to six inches of pigeon guano on the floor, but we knew we had the bones of a great building.”

“It’s an indestructible building and an ideal site for TV training and broadcasting with the high, 45-foot-tall ceilings,” said Henderson.

The project cost $8.7 million. So far the partnership’s capital campaign has raised $7.2 million and plans to close the $1.5 balance with private and institutional donations and a gala fund-raising event.

The building will be named the BNN Charles J. Beard II Media Center, honoring a founding member of the station, a leader in telecommunication law who negotiated the first cable contract with Mayor Kevin White and the first African-American partner in a major Boston law firm. Beard died in 2004, but Henderson said his memory and purpose would endure through the new facility.

“Charlie was a mentor and a role model to me for over 15 years,” Henderson said. “He would be absolutely ecstatic to see this beautiful facility after being involved with the community and media for so many years.”