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Readville residents sue to block demolition of former library for apartments

Some residents living near a church-owned "reading room" in Readville that once served as a BPL branch have gone to court to counter the church's own court court effort to win approval to replace the building with a six-unit apartment building even as the Hyde Park Historical Society is offering to buy the building to keep it a public site.

At issue in both suits, filed in state Land Court, is an 1890s bequest by Ellen Stetson granting land to he Blue Hill Evangelical Society, with a requirement that a small building on Hamilton Street be permanently kept as a "a free and public reading room and library" - initially known as the Phillips Brooks Memorial Reading Room, in honor of the Trinity Church pastor who gave several sermons in the society hall next door.

In its suit, filed last month, the Blue Hill Community Church, which took over the land and buildings after the Blue Hill Evangelical Society dissolved, says it would suffer "irreparable harm" if it were forced to continue the building's original use, in part because it can't afford repairs for it.

In the deed through which it took over the land from the society in 1991, the church agreed to the requirement to keep the reading room public.

In their own suit, filed earlier this month, eight nearby residents say Stetson's bequest created a "perpetual charitable trust" that the church can't simply abrogate and that if the church is unwilling or unable to preserve the reading room, it should consider the historical society's offer to negotiate a purchase. It points, among other things, to the use of the word "forever" in the bequest from Stetson, a Back Bay resident who summered in Readville and who gave the evangelical society the land - once part of Camp Meigs, where the famous 54th Massachusetts regiment trained before going into action in the Civil War.

The reading room served as a public-library branch from 1897 through 1956, at first for the Hyde Park library and then the BPL after Hyde Park was annexed in 1912. Between 1956 and at least 1983, the evangelical society kept the building in use for the public, if not as a library - including letting it be used for a non-profit theater and dance group.

The current church filed plans for an apartment building on the site in 2021, but the city put the plans on hold after residents submitted objections, similar to the ones in their suit, according to the residents' suit.

The historical society made its offer after it learned of the church Land Court suit - and after it had made several offers between 2022 and 2023 to help the church find ways to finance needed repairs to keep the building as is.

Complete complaint by residents (5.3M PDF; includes a copy of the letter from the historical society as an appendix).

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Comments

Can they nominate the building for the National Register of Historic Places?

Then it might be eligible for additional preservation grants, etc. and it might be more likely to be saved, although preserving Boston's historic buildings and interiors is clearly not a priority for Mayor Wu or even for our new Head of Historic Preservation. Preservationists are feeling under siege these days, and it's not because we need more affordable housing.

I wish those neighbors luck, and they are going to need it.

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It it really a historic place? Did anything of any importance whatsoever happen there? Simply having been once briefly used by an historical figure is not enough; State Street downtown is not a historic place even though most, if not all, of the major figures of the American Revolution probably traveled it at some point.

Preservationists may be feeling under attack at least in part because they insist on using aggressive tactics to preserve things of seriously dubious historical value. Some old things are just old, and some Bostonians think our city can and should be more than a time capsule.

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And I don't think the building has much architectural merit or historical for that matter. That said, with the deeded restriction I rather have to side with the preservation: the land was given with the express legal intent to keep a reading room there for the public and that should be honored.

I think I would be fine with a new building that had an equal (or larger) public ground floor space to replace it.

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Shame the Storrow's weren't able to do that with the land they donated. Oh well.

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There is one major difference between a city government and a historical association. City governments can make new rules nullifying codicils.

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I'm pretty sure none of the concern here is about historical preservation. It's a common strategy of anti-housing NIMBYs to claim crumbling buildings are "historical" in order to block any new construction in their neighborhoods.

Here's an example on Centre Street in West Roxbury. Originally, they were all just complaining that they didn't want condos there. Then they conveniently discovered that the abandoned buildings were timeless treasures that had to be preserved. They appear to have succeeded in blocking construction and preserving it as an eyesore dirt lot surrounded by chain link fence, even though Hennigan is finally gone.

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But this is a library/ reading room. You don’t need evil intent to want to keep that in your neighborhood. We all want more housing but not at the expense of privatizing public space.

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But this is a library/ reading room.

It looks like that ended in 1956.

The reading room served as a public-library branch from 1897 through 1956... Between 1956 and at least 1983, the evangelical society kept the building in use for the public, if not as a library

The filing says the building is closed, in disrepair, and not used for any public purpose. The sign over the door identifies it as the "Eglise Evangelique De La Communion Fraternelle" which would have been an evangelical church.

I'm fairly certain that the nearby residents aren't going to be harmed by not having it slowly crumbling there over the next few decades.

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Preservationist are under attack because NIMBYs use preservation as a shield from any land use that might "change the historic character of an area".

Which most times is code for we don't want newcomers.

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I note that a lot of what they're offering in their letter seems to be helping to identify sources of funding, etc. I'd be curious to know if they actually have the resources to purchase this property at fair market value*, pay for all necessary renovations, and then staff it in order to keep it open as a public resource.

*of course, if it's legally found that the church can't do anything but sell it to be kept as a public reading room, I suppose the idea of "fair market value" might not be applicable.

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Occupy too much of Boston. From the massive graveyards to the century-old bequests dictating what can and can’t be done with land.

I’m being a bit facetious here, but there comes a time when bygones should become bygones and what so-and-so wanted done 125 years ago with a now-dilapidated building shouldn’t matter — even when NIMBYs and condo-phobes think that so-and-so’s will must be honored.

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but in that case, the landowner should have to forfeit an amount of money roughly equal to the increase in land value that the removal of the restriction allows. Perhaps with a multiplier.

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Forfeit to whom? Bury it in the grave with the long-dead person who made the perpetual gift? The claim underlying the suit is that the will of the long-dead person is being violated, the plaintiffs themselves have no standing or entitlement.

Parallel: chances are the developer will pay more for this land than the historical society, so why should the owner be forced to sell to the historical society.

I don’t have this figured out, I don’t have answers (so maybe I’m just being annoying and begging questions), and there are probably problems and scenarios I’m not thinking through. But directionally, it seems like we need to do less for long-dead people, particularly when it’s at the expense of now-living people.

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