The Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) held a virtual meeting on August 6 to provide information to the public about its recent decision to sell the former Blessed Sacrament Church after not being able to find a development partner.
The HSTF Board publicly announced on July 17 that it will be selling the former church building. The virtual meeting last week brought in more than 70 participants, many of whom were upset about the lack of community process that led to the decision being made.
HSTF Executive Director Celina Miranda explained at the meeting that the organization “could not take on the development of the church alone.” A Request for Proposal was issued last year “with the hope that it would identify a development partner,” but no “viable option” was found,” she said.
“We tried to leave no stone unturned here,” HSTF board member Carlos Garcia said. “The church is not a property suitable to be converted into affordable housing or any other sort of use.” He said the board had talked to developers in the area and tried to see if state or other local funds were available, but “unfortunately, we have not been able to find a suitable solution.”
Miranda said that “prior to the pandemic, we were already wrestling with some…truths. Now this is even more so as we’re in the middle of a pandemic.” She said that as a community-based organization with an annual budget of $2 million, it is not possible for the HSTF to cover the costs of renovation without a partner.
“It took us five years to raise a little bit over $2 million to renovate our current home,” she said, which sits behind the church. She said the current building still needs exterior renovations as well.
“While the pandemic did not drive our decision, it definitely added a lot of urgency to our decision,” she said. “The outlook for fundraising in the immediate future is uncertain.”
Board Chair Mark Saperstein said that he has been on the board for 15 years, and is “one of the few people still on the board who was there when we voted to buy the church.” He said that HSTF bought it “because we were trying to prevent it from becoming luxury housing.”
He said that “a lot of weight” was put behind the decision to sell the church. “We don’t want to let the community down,” he said. “None of us were happy having to make this decision. We’re not real estate developers; we’re youth developers.”
Miranda said that real estate company Colliers International has been hired as the broker, because “they have experience with buildings like this one.” She said that the property will likely be on the market late this summer or early fall.
The public voiced their concerns about the community process surrounding this decision, and many suggested other things that could be done and discussed as a community.
“Where is that community base?” Vanessa Snow, a community organizer and HSTF alum, asked, referencing HSTF’s community reach. “The base was not engaged properly. There was not a community meeting before the board voted on this. I’m very disappointed about that.”
She continued, “why wasn’t there a meeting before the vote, because the people who made this decision…weren’t on the board when I was a young person; when HSTF made a commitment to develop that campus in a way that met the needs of the community?”
Miranda responded by saying she was on the board when they voted to purchase the church.
“I know our history and how important we have been in that process,” she said. “It was hard knowing the amount of resources it would take. I hear your critique of the process and we will take it and I will make sure that we are more transparent and that we engage community differently going forward. I think it’s a fair question to ask.”
Carlos Espinoza-Toro of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) asked what would happen if no one bought the property, and whether or not the pending landmark designation would affect its ability to be developed affordably.
“If no one buys the property, we go back to the drawing board and try and figure out what we can do,” Miranda said. She said there is a lot of uncertainty around the circumstances,, but HSTF would “continue to be owners of the church and try to figure it out.”
Board member Jon Block said that the church is pending landmark status right now. “I don’t think that can be overturned, but that’s also not really the driving cost of the redevelopment,” he said.
Board member Kathy Lebron said she “did take a vote to sell the church. I’ve made my peace with that.” She said the decision was made to “ensure the youth are getting what they need.”
She continued, “with that said, I do agree with Vanessa that the community was cut out if this process….the issue is now how can we tap into the community:” Black and Indigenous people of color, Latinx people, and residents and small business owners who have always been in the neighborhood.
“How can we tap into those folks and make sure they have a say in this process?” she asked. “JP is very white now; it does not feel like the community I lived in, and I think that’s a problem.” She added that she believes HSTF should “demand” any buyer who purchases the building to ensure that people are not displaced from their community.
“We are not looking for the highest bidder,” Miranda said. “That’s not at all what we’re trying to do here. We would look at a bid more favorably if they include some sort of community space for HSTF.”
One resident, identified as Dorothy on Zoom, said that she “grew up in that church and that school,” and she and her parents were married there. “This building is extremely important to me,” she said.
She said that the HSTF should “start thinking in terms of Boston. There is so much that can be done with this building. It’s not a church anymore.” She said that she wants to save the building “so bad,” and not just for Jamaica Plain, but “there are so many organizations, cultural organizations that need a satellite place, a satellite campus to practice,” such as choral groups, among others.
“It could be a museum, a concert hall, a convention center,” she said. “Keeping it just for JP, just for Hyde Square is not going to work. It’s got to be for all of Boston, for metro Boston….please, I beg of you to keep it.”
Betsaida Gutierrez, another resident and community leader, also said that “the church is a very precious place for me. It was my place of worship.”
She told the Gazette that she would like to see more community meetings about the church, as she is upset that the community was not involved in the first place.”We need to know if they want us to work together,” she said, and suggested a socially distanced meeting in which “community members of all parties work together as honestly as we can.”
Other residents expressed their dissatisfaction with the process and explained how they felt the community was not involved in the process. Much of the community thinks that with more meetings and input from everyone, a solution can be found.
Miranda said that “we did not involve the youth in the way we should have,” adding that the “makeup of young people has changed over the years” and now only around 14 percent of them actually come from the Latin Quarter.
She said this was “the beginning of a process,” and urged people to reach out to her as she would be “happy to have conversations; we can continue the dialogue and we will consider a lot of what we heard today,” she said, and “figure out a path forward.”