Friday, June 4, 2010

Anticipating the Future in Allston

HBI received several calls last week from neighbors to the Palestinian Cultural Center for Peace and Yousef Mosque at 41 Quint Avenue in Allston. The newest owner of the property, Anwar Faisal, has been making significant landscape changes to the south side of the property with dirt and fill meant to re-grade the sloping landscape for parking. Wasn’t there something that could be done to stop it? Known historically as the Allston Congregational Church, this beautiful 1891 Richardsonian Romanesque church building was home to a vibrant congregation for more than 100 years until 2003 when its shrinking membership decided to sell the church to another religious denomination.

At that time HBI accepted the donation of a preservation easement on the church property. An easement is a legal agreement that protects a significant historic resource by providing assurance that the property's intrinsic value will be preserved through subsequent ownership. When the easement was recorded, HBI worked with the congregation’s members to delineate the most important historic and architectural features of the building and property and drafted a conditions survey in order to document everything in that moment of time, and make recommendations for the short and long term stewardship. Each year, HBI inspects the property to make sure that no harm has come to the property’s protected characteristics.


When they executed the easement agreement, HBI and the members of the Allston Congregational Church were anticipating the future. What shouldn’t change? What should be managed through changing circumstances? Who should make those determinations and how? Above all, how can the most significant elements of a building be preserved while allowing it to remain functional over time.


The easement document largely focuses on the interior and exterior features of the Allston church building and parsonage. The landscape grade, contents and treatment are largely undefined. The owner’s current activities -- changing grade, importing landscape material, and expanding parking surfaces – are unaddressed specifically in the easement and oversight documents. However, to older congregants and neighbors who have roamed these grounds, planted organic gardens and played there, these changes are alarming adjustments to a familiar landscape that is also context for one of Boston’s most beautiful religious buildings.


HBI is reviewing the easement with its attorneys and the property owner to determine if the current projects – publicly permitted or not – abide by the terms of the preservation easement. In the most egregious circumstances, HBI could force the owner to undo inappropriate changes. It is more likely the current activity is not a serious violation of the easement, but a poorly executed one which might have been made better with early review and planning with HBI and its architects, a process that is required in the easement instrument. For HBI, which holds easements on seven properties in Boston, enforcement is largely about education. For property owners like Mr. Faisal, knowing in advance what is permissible and appropriate makes for better stewardship, takes the sting out of enforcement and, in the Allston case, can accommodate present needs that could not have been anticipated when the easement was drafted.

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