At this week’s meeting of the North End / Waterfront Residents’ Association, the group voted 25-2 to support a proposal to move the North Bennet Street School to a set of empty city buildings along North and Richmond Streets.
Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, President of the North Bennet Street School, provided an update on the school’s expansion plans. NBSS is requesting neighborhood support to move to the former City of Boston Printing Building on the corner of North and Richmond Streets along with the old police station building facing the Greenway.
Long North End History
NBSS has more than a century-old history in the North End since it started classes in 1881 in its current location which it purchased in 1885. The current facility occupies 4 buildings that are internally connected.
Since 1920, NBSS has been focused on vocational training with eight full-time professional programs training students in Bookbinding, Cabinet and Furniture Making, Carpentry, Jewelry Making and Repair, Locksmithing, Piano Technology, Preservation Carpentry, and Violin Making and Repair. In addition, the NBSS Workshop program offers more than 150 hands-on workshops and short-term courses each year.
Today, NBSS has about 300 full-time and 500 part-time students. In the 1990s, the school realized the need for expansion and looked elsewhere in the city, most seriously in Charlestown, but failed to find a suitable relocation spot.
In 2004, NBSS moved two programs out of the North End to Arlington to rented facilities near Massachusetts Avenue. Currently, it has about 25% of its students at that location.
Expansion Proposal by the North Bennet Street School
When the City of Boston closed the North Street printing plant last year, NBSS saw an opportunity to expand and remain in the neighborhood. “There is no other facility coming up nearby, so we see this as our last opportunity to stay in the North End,” said Miguel Gomez-Ibanez.
In addition to the former city printing plant building on North and Richmond Streets, NBSS would put its offices in the adjacent old police station with the pediment facade facing the Greenway on the corner of Cross and North Streets. There is also a third empty building on the block that NBSS would also look to occupy. The small building is used by the State Police for the tunnel. Gomez-Ibanez believes it is just used as a changing room and does not house any workers.
The NBSS currently occupies about 60,000 square feet including 10,000 square feet in Arlington. The three buildings on North Street would total about 80,000 square feet (printing building is 50k, police station is 20k and the small State Police building is 10k). If successful in obtaining the North St. buildings, NBSS would bring back the students currently located in Arlington.
Potential Expansion Space for the Eliot School
Adding to the community angle, the NBSS has offered to swap their existing space on N. Bennet St. to the City of Boston in exchange for the North St. buildings that the city owns. In such a scenario, the City could use the N. Bennet Street location to expand the Eliot School. There would be enough added space to potentially add high school grades and make the current K-8 public school into K-12.
NBSS expanded its ties to the Eliot School two years ago when it started a pilot program with the Eliot School to teach carpentry, furniture making, and other manual arts. All students in grades 6-8 at the Eliot School now spend one period a week at the North Bennet Street School, where they build a shop project. The program has grant funding for the next three years. Gomez-Ibanez said the added space in the North St. buildings would allow them to introduce more community programs.
Gomez-Ibanez noted the assessed value of their current location is about $1 million more than that of the assessed value of the combined North Street buildings. It was not clear when those assessments were last updated since the North St. buildings are city-owned.
Jon Sproul, resident, NEWNC member and employee of Boston Public Schools, asked if NBSS has formalized its swap proposal with the Eliot or City of Boston. “BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson has visited and seems enthusiastic about the concept, but the city has its own budget and timing issues. I know the Mayor’s Office is looking at other options for the Eliot School,” said the NBSS President.
Gomez-Ibanez said he is looking for neighborhood support independent of the Eliot School option. That raises the question of what would happen to existing NBSS building if not used by the Eliot.
Developer Interest in the North Street Buildings
The Boston Finance Commission has recently questioned why the city is delaying the sale of the empty properties, according to the Boston Herald. Local developer Matteo Gallo has expressed interest in using the North Street buildings for a boutique hotel or residences in a follow-up article.
“If it becomes a bidding war, we are out,” said NBSS’ Gomez-Ibanez. “We can’t compete with a commercial developer. We are certainly in a position to purchase and maintain the school, but this only works if the neighborhood feels there is a community benefit to keeping it here.”
The NBSS President also pointed out that the printing building is well-suited for the school because it is built to withstand heavy loads and equipment similar to that used by vocational trades.
NEWRA Discussion and Vote
“We would like to get your neighborhood group to vote for the NBSS to occupy the North Street buildings,” said President Gomez-Ibanez.
Asked about a petition, Gomez-Ibanez said, “We don’t want to be seen as generating some movement putting pressure on the Mayor or straining the city’s process.”
NEWRA Secretary Nicky Rafter said she had received four emails from neighborhood parents that could not attend the meeting but wanted to voice their support of the NBSS move to allow the Eliot School to expand on N. Bennet Street.
David Kubiak, co-chair of NEWRA’s Zoning, Licensing & Construction Committee, said he is concerned that the City of Boston is giving up so much public property and space. “If it goes to NBSS, it will be private property.”
“The worst thing would be if the NBSS leaves the North End,” continued Kubiak. “I am afraid of NEWRA taking a vote without knowing if there are public proposals for that building. I would like NEWRA to vote to keep the NBSS in the neighborhood but not specifically to the printing building,” he said.
Many NEWRA members objected to Kubiak’s assertions. Sue Beneviste said, “I can’t imagine losing the NBSS. If not the NBSS, then what, a condominium?” Commercial Street resident Victor Brogna also disagreed with Kubiak. “The Herald article was written because of the Boston Finance Commission and its desire to make money for the city. That is what we are being asked,” he said. Mary McGee also spoke in favor of the NBSS proposal, “Where else would you put them if not the printing building? Keeping the history makes the neighborhood unique.”
Using secret ballots, it was announced that NEWRA members voted 25-2 in support of moving the NBSS to the North St. printing building and adjacent buildings.