West End community leaders and longtime residents are imploring Mass General to spare three historic buildings in the neighborhood that are slated for demolition as part of the hospital’s planned $1 billion expansion of its Cambridge Street campus.
“We’re here, and you keep taking and taking and taking, and we’re tired of it,” longtime West End resident Patricia Cherin told hospital officials during an Aug. 19 virtual meeting sponsored by the Boston Planning and Development Agency. “We’ve accommodated you, we’ve watched buildings fall down and get town down, and we lived with an empty parking lot for years. It just seems as though there’s not going to be anything left.”
MGH intends to build a pair of connected, 12-story towers that would provide 494 new hospital beds (many of which would be single occupancy), with surge capacity for an additional 130 patients; additional imaging and lab space; and a 246-space parking garage located beneath the structure to accommodate only patients and their families.
The project as proposed would result in the demolition of the 1884 Winchell Elementary School (a.k.a. Ruth Sleeper Hall) at 24 Blossom St., the 1910 West End Tenement House at 23-25 North Anderson St. and the West End Settlement House at 16-18 Blossom St. – three of about a dozen historically significant buildings in the neighborhood to have survived the Urban Renewal efforts that began in the 1950s.
Tom Sieniewicz, a partner with the Boston office of the architectural firm NBBJ, said the three buildings couldn’t be preserved and would only be suitable for reuse if retrofitted as office space (while the new complex has no plans for new office space).
The cost to relocate the buildings is estimated to be around $177 million, Sieniewicz added, and that comes with no assurance from the sub-contractor that the structures wouldn’t be destroyed or damaged in the process.
“The three West End structures would result in a significant loss to community,” said Sally Mason Boemer, MGH’s senior vice president of administration and finance. “We can’t find a way to save them, but we can look at mitigation of the structures.”
Proposed mitigation, Boemer said, includes giving financial support to organizations dedicated to historic preservation in the West End and Beacon Hill; collaborating with local museums to create an exhibit focusing on the history of MGH and the West End; and providing public space to display such an exhibit.
This came as little consolation to many of the project’s critics, however.
“The mitigation is pathetic,” said Duane Lucia, president of the West End Museum board of directors. “That’s even more of a slap in the face.”
The project, Lucia added, is just the latest instance of “West End displacement by Urban Renewal and MGH’s unchecked expansion that has followed.”
Lucia urged hospital officials to return the three buildings to community use and suggested transforming the Winchell building into a senior center.
Likewise, one or more of the buildings could be converted into a school or community center, Lucia said, since the neighborhood now also lacks both of these amenities.
Steve Jerome of the West End balked at the proposed mitigation as well.
“Mitigation isn’t preservation,” Jerome said, “and the mitigation proposed so far isn’t an acceptable approach to a solution.”
The project would in essence, he said, “build a wall along Cambridge Street.”
Jerome told hospital officials: “This isn’t over tonight, and the community won’t back down.”
Emily Brown, director of policy and communications for City Councilor Kenzie Bok, said the councilor is extremely concerned that the project would result in the loss of not one, but three of the few remaining historic West End buildings, and that Councilor Bok plans to follow up on the matter with both the BPDA and MGH.
Although many in the community are clearly dissatisfied with the proposal, Greg Galer, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Preservation Alliance, which helped coordinate the meeting with the BPDA, urged stakeholders to work together to reach a compromise.
“It is a challenge, but it can be surmounted,” Galer said. “Hopefully, collectively we can collaborate and find a solution that works for everyone.”