When should a principle be disregarded? When the principle stands in the way of a good neighborhood.
A case in point has developed on Beacon Hill. The Park Street School, which, typically in contradictory Boston, is located on Brimmer Street, wants to buy the adjacent house at 124 Chestnut Street and attach it to the main school building, expanding its classroom, office and storage space.
The Beacon Hill Civic Association’s long-standing policy has been to oppose turning residences into commercial or institutional uses. There was good reason for this position. As auto-obsessed folks during much of the 20th century fled the city for leafy suburbs, such institutions as the Appalachian Mountain Club and the American Meteorological Society took over family houses, especially along Beacon Street and its feeder streets. MGH and Suffolk University were also greedy for Beacon Hill properties. So if Beacon Hill were to remain a residential neighborhood, limits had to be imposed.
By the 1990s, things had changed. Agreements had been struck with the large institutions that kept them from expanding into Hill residences. Most important, urban life became fashionable again. Suburbanites were enthralled with idea of restaurants nearby. Young professionals saw the convenience of raising children where they could walk to Little League games. If they had the wherewithal, they wanted to stay in the city.
The city became so popular and housing so scarce that some organizations took advantage of rising prices and sold their buildings to developers who returned them to housing. Colleges and universities, pushed by frustrated neighbors and pulled by the realization that to become great they’d have to have more expansion room, forsook their townhouses on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay and moved to bigger commercial buildings downtown, creating even more space for housing.
One former Emerson College building experienced a different outcome. Short-sightedly rejected by the Boston Public Schools, it was renovated by the Park Street School, which in 2005 expanded its Park Street Kids program gradually into grades one through six. This school serves the downtown neighborhoods well. Eighty-two percent of its students live in Boston, with 42 percent coming from the walkable zip codes of 02018, 02114 and 02116.
So should this school be allowed to take over a residential building? At a meeting last week the lines were drawn. Parents wanted the expansion to take place. They praised the school for strengthening the community and giving them a reason to stay in the city. Sympathetic neighbors described the joy that comes from watching and hearing the kids.
Civic association officials expressed dismay at the expansion. Precedent was the first concern. With all the laudable non-profits on the Hill, how could they support one and not others in expanding? Another problem is the lack of a public school. Park Street is private, open to those who can pay a high price. If Park Street School serves Beacon Hill and the Back Bay well, will the mayor and school officials use this as an excuse for not moving forward on a downtown public school?
The first concern is easy to answer. Most non-profits on the Hill are not interested in expansion. It’s hard to imagine Beacon Hill Seminars, another community builder, wanting the expense and frustrations of owning a building. Such non-profits as the Appalachian Mountain Club are wonderful, but contribute little to a sense of neighborhood and could never mount the sympathy for taking over another residence. Advent School is probably the only institution that could take advantage of a precedent. Surely the civic association can deal imaginatively with one institution.
BHCA leaders often have sounded like Richard Nixon with his domino theory when exaggerating the dreadful consequences if one of their long-stated principles is not upheld. A recent example was when neighborhood restaurants finally pried full liquor licenses out of City Hall and BHCA leaders predicted mayhem in the streets. But nothing happened. The only difference is that there are now more places for neighbors to gather.
Second, a private school has nothing to do with a public school. Plenty of Beacon Hill and Back Bay parents want a public school for their children and they either can’t or choose not to pay up to $21,000 for each child’s schooling at Park Street or more at another private school.
Right now, the stratospheric prices that institutions can pay for buildings seem to be about the same that families in the .01 percent will pay for such buildings. The situation is not analogous to small businesses and their competition with wealthy banks that want to occupy storefronts, another argument that was put forth.
Schools are critical to the health of the downtown neighborhoods, and they are critical to the city’s health as a whole. A city without children is a city not worth living in. The circumstances have changed since MGH, Suffolk and various non-profits bore down on the Hill’s buildings. Beacon Hill now has more residences than it did fifteen years ago because so many institutional uses have been transformed. What it needs now are services and enticements for families we so desperately want to keep. Park Street’s small expansion offers just that.
Sometimes a principle hinders something good—in this case a small expansion of a cherished neighborhood institution that supports families just as we say we want it to. When principles do that, they should be ignored.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.