Arboretum sets expansion plan


House to be “mothballed”
ARBORETUM—Arnold Arboretum has announced its plans for a new, 45,000-square-foot building on the Roslindale border, and is holding off its other expansion dreams for at least 10 years. Construction may start in April.

The plans also call for “mothballing” the vacant, historic Jabez Lewis farmhouse at 1090 Centre St., with no plans to use it for at least the next decade. The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) is considering landmarking that house. [See related story.]

The arboretum proposed much more ambitious plans in 2004, including an 18,000-square-foot maintenance facility near its greenhouses, and a 15,000-square-foot expansion of the Hunnewell Building at its main Arborway entrance. Both of those have been taken off the table for now following community opposition, but the arboretum says such expansion and centralization are long-term necessities.

A related library and “herbaria,” or plant collection, may also move to the arboretum from the Cambridge campus of Harvard University, which runs the arboretum. However, the plans call that “unlikely.”

The proposal is laid out in the arboretum’s Institutional Master Plan (IMP) developed over the last two years with community input and filed last month with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). An IMP is an official document spelling out proposed institutional expansion for the next decade.

New facility
The new Research and Administration Building is slated for “Weld Hill,” a piece of the arboretum currently not open to the public. It’s a 14.2-acre, hill-capped lot bordered by Centre, Walter and Weld streets and the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. Sometimes known as Puddingstone Hill or Prouty’s Hill, it sits across Walter Street from the more familiar Peters Hill section of the arboretum. The City of Boston owns most of the arboretum land and leases it back to Harvard, but the arboretum actually owns the Weld Hill lot.

The building will house greenhouses, labs and staff relocated both from Cambridge and from the Hunnewell Building, including the office of arboretum Director Bob Cook. Some Hunnewell programming will expand to fill the relocated offices. The new building will have a 100-seat meeting hall that will be available for public use.

The main entrance will be on Centre Street just past the VFW Parkway intersection. Pedestrians and service and emergency vehicles will be able to use a Walter Street entrance. A Weld Street entrance will also be open to pedestrians and emergency vehicles.

The building will wrap around the northern base of the hill. It will be three stories in three sections with a varied roofline ranging from 20 to 47 feet high. The arboretum is aiming for LEED Silver status, a high industry ranking of environmental friendliness.

The building will house about 55 faculty and staff members. About 50 parking spaces will be placed along the driveway near the building. The spaces will not be open to general arboretum visitors.

Weld Hill itself may get a facelift. Part of the plan involves fixing the hilltop, which was once cut flat, by making it pointy again and maybe adding rustic seating like the stone blocks on Peters Hill.

As a trade-off for the new building, the arboretum has agreed to a 50-year ban on any more “permanent, above-ground enclosed structures” or surface parking on about 45 percent of the Weld Hill lot. In an introductory letter to the IMP, Cook called it an “unprecedented commitment.”

The arboretum also agreed that any future development of any size on the parcel will undergo BRA review, even if it doesn’t meet the usual BRA review thresholds. However, the kind of review varies. If development was 20,000 square feet or smaller, it would only trigger internal BRA review. Larger development would trigger a full IMP amendment process.

The IMP includes what it calls speculative sketches of possible small-scale additions to the new building, adding they were included only at community request.

The lot is zoned for 3,000-square-foot, single-family houses, so the arboretum is seeking to change the zoning. The new zoning would specifically ban dorms, any centralized maintenance facility and any general parking on the land. Also, nothing could be built higher than the hill, and in most cases no higher than 35 feet.

A traffic study estimates the building will add about 300 vehicle trips per weekday to the area, which would be a minor or negligible increase. New sidewalks and crosswalks would be added to the area if the city allows it.

Construction is aimed for an April start and would last 18 to 24 months. The building is budgeted at $31 million.

The 180-year-old Lewis farmhouse housed arboretum staff for decades, but has been vacant since 1993, leading to resident fears of “demolition by neglect.”

The original plans called for demolishing the farmhouse and replacing it with the maintenance facility. Cook said last year the house was so rotted it would need to be either rebuilt or torn down. The arboretum also offered to move the house somewhere else.

Local residents, especially through the Jamaica Hills Association, protested and recently convinced the BLC to study possibly landmark status for the house, which is among JP’s oldest.

The IMP reveals that, “As of August 2006, the Arboretum had completed measures to stabilize the structure and prevent deterioration.”

It adds that no other changes to arboretum buildings are planned for the term of the IMP, implying that no rehab or reuse is planned for at least another decade.

The IMP says that “since the future use of the property has not been determined,” it “recommends that the house be protected in a manner consistent with the mothballing measures” described in a National Park Service “preservation brief.” The IMP cites what is apparently the wrong brief, No. 36. Preservation Brief No. 31 is one that addresses “Mothballing Historic Buildings.”

The brief says that “mothballing,” or short-term preservation of a building, should involve: documenting it fully; making sure it is structurally sound and doing any necessary repairs; getting pest control; protecting it from water; securing it; ventilating it; checking the utilities; and establishing a plan for ongoing maintenance and monitoring. All such efforts should be reversible and not damage the building, the brief says.

All of those steps have been taken, according to Harvard spokesperson Kevin McCluskey. Specifically, he said, that includes replacing flashing and roofing around the house’s chimneys; installing a dehumidifier in the basement; and removing an unused oil tank.

Mothballing is intended to “buy the owner valuable time” to find a reuse or raise money for a rehab, the brief says.

“A vacant historic building cannot survive indefinitely in a boarded-up condition, and so even marginal interim uses, such as a caretaker residence or non-flammable storage, are generally preferable to mothballing,” the brief says.

“Maybe the only point we can make on that score is simply to reiterate we don’t have any plans for the use of that building,” said McCluskey when asked to clarify the long-term plans for the farmhouse.

Asked why the house was vacated by the arboretum after so many years, McCluskey said, “That was clearly a decision by folks who have run the arboretum to organize their staff in a different way. What works at one point in time, I don’t think people should make the assumption that’s going to work all the time.”

Next steps

The IMP needs approval from the BRA. The Weld Hill zoning changes require approval by the Zoning Commission, the Boston Parks Commission and Roslindale’s interim zoning review process. The new building will also undergo the BRA’s usual development review process, which includes public meetings.

The BRA is accepting written public comments through Dec. 5. They can be sent to Gerald Autler at [email protected] or BRA, Boston City Hall, 9th Floor, One City Hall Square, Boston, MA 02201.

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