Mass.Eye and Ear Selling Hotel/Garage

Officials from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, now known as the Mass. Eye and Ear, are in talks with several developers about selling their property on Beacon Hill.

“The John Jeffries House is historically significant to the Mass. Eye and Ear, but it was not part of our mission,” said hospital spokesperson Jennifer Street. “It was the right time to explore selling.”

When the building and its adjacent parking lot went on the market in late 2014, with Cushman Wakefield as the hospital’s representative, the property attracted interest from many buyers. The hospital received what Street characterized as “many good bids.”

There was a catch, however. The bidders also wanted to buy its next-door property, the Charles Street Garage. That building contains parking for 145 vehicles, of which Mass. Eye and Ear uses fewer than 30 for its employees. MGH no longer has reserved spaces in the garage, said MGH Senior Vice President, Adminstration Jean Elrick, although some MGH employees who live on the Hill might park there on their own. The garage also houses space at street level for such establishments as Panificio and Savenor’s grocery.

“Even though we hadn’t marketed the garage, it reached a point where we decided to consider both pieces of property,” said Street.

The hospital is now in negotiation with several qualified buyers. There is no timetable or deadline, but Street said they were at a critical stage in the process.

All buyers discussed transforming at least some portion of the properties into residential condominiums with an unspecified number of parking spaces reserved for the community, but Street said she has no specific knowledge of the buyers’ plans, since once the property is sold, the buyer, not Mass. Eye and Ear, will determine the uses and their proportion.

Any possibility of losing parking for neighborhood residents strikes fear into the hearts of many. “I’d want to know how many spaces and what kind they would be for parking for the neighborhood,” said long-time Hill resident Sally Brewster.

Even if some spaces are reserved for neighborhood parking rather than only for residents in the newly constructed condominiums, there is still worry about what would happen during construction to the cars now parking there. “We have nowhere to put our cars,” said Brewster.

Changes to the property would probably be vetted by the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Zoning and Licensing Committee, since it is likely that new owners would need variances from zoning regulations governing floor-area ratio, setbacks or change of use, said Russell Gaudreau, the committee’s co-chair. The Beacon Hill Architectural Commission must also weigh in on any design changes visible from a public way.

One solution to parking for Beacon Hill residents, although it won’t be available until at least 2021, is through Mass. Eye and Ear’s proposed 1,000-space garage under the Esplanade. The legislature gave the hospital approval last year to proceed with the garage. With a new governor and the usual delays, Mass. Eye and Ear is still in negotiations over the lease with the state’s Department of Transportation and the governor’s office, said Street. Ideally the construction would begin in 2017.

No promises exist, however, as to how parking for the neighborhood would be accommodated in that garage. Night and weekend parking is easy to work out, since Mass. Eye and Ear patients would use the garage primarily on weekdays. Monthly parking or some other arrangement would have to be negotiated.

The Mass. Eye and Ear has a long history on Beacon Hill. Founded as a free clinic in Scollay Square in 1824 by John Jeffries and Edward Reynolds, both eye surgeons, it soon grew out of its quarters. In 1850, the founders built a handsome, classical-style hospital near Charles Circle where its property is now, according to Bill Owens, an amateur historian and photographer. Both Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, were treated in this Beacon Hill institution.

In 1899, the Mass. Eye and Ear expanded again and built the brick building, now enclosed by its 1973 tower, that it still occupies farther up Charles Street. The infirmary built the John Jeffries House on part of its site in 1909 for use as a nurses’ residence.

When Charles Street was widened by 10 feet on its river side in 1920, several small houses that occupied land near or on the present garage site were demolished. One of those houses had been owned by the writer Annie Fields and her husband, James T. Fields, the Atlantic Monthly editor. Another house had been the residence of the doctor and author Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1922, the building that is now the Charles Street Garage was built as a car dealership. Owens remembers the Volkswagen dealership that was there when he moved to West Hill Place in the mid-1960s. He bought a Dasher from them in 1976 and had it repaired there in 1977 after it suffered damage from an accident he had on the Mass. Pike. Mass. Eye and Ear bought the garage building in 1980.

Mass. Eye and Ear’s real estate transactions are all part of a plan to make their facility as efficient as possible. The proximity to MGH and MIT’s research labs are important.

“We do want to stay here,” said Street. “There is so much cool science going on.”

In an aside, she said that building the garage and figuring out how to proceed was first projected to take place in 2020. Project 2020 seemed perfect for a hospital that focuses on eye problems.

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