UUA looking into possible sale of Boston buildings

UUA looking into possible sale of Boston buildings

Administration expresses interest in modern building near Andover Newton Theological School.

Donald E. Skinner


The Unitarian Universalist Association is exploring the possibility of buying a building in Newton, Mass., a move that would likely lead to its selling off part of its office space on Boston’s Beacon Hill.

UUA President Peter Morales confirmed December 7 in a meeting with UUA staff that the administration is looking into the purchase of an office building now owned and occupied by Hebrew College. The building is next to Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, about eight miles west of the UUA’s current buildings.

Morales made the announcement because a recent newsletter from Meadville Lombard Theological School and a Boston Globearticle had mentioned the building’s availability. Morales said he wanted to forestall rumors. (Meadville Lombard, a UUA-affiliated seminary in Chicago, is collaborating with Andover Newton to form a new “theological university” headquartered on Andover Newton’s campus.)

Morales emphasized that discussions about the Hebrew College building are very tentative. He told the UUA staff, “I want to emphasize that this process is in its very early stages and the number of unknowns at this point is considerable. We don’t know what the asking price for the Hebrew College property will be or if we could afford to even bid on it. We will need to get an accurate evaluation of the value of our Beacon Hill properties and then consider which of those properties to put on the market.”

He added that whatever property shifts are made, the UUA would likely retain “some presence” on Beacon Hill. He noted that any property purchase and sale would have to be approved by the UUA Board of Trustees. He said the board authorized the administration to begin to investigate the possibility of purchasing the property in October.

The UUA owns three properties on Beacon Hill, a historic neighborhood in the center of Boston. The Association’s headquarters building is at 25 Beacon Street, next to the Massachusetts Statehouse and across from Boston Common. Beacon Press and other UUA offices are located at 41 Mount Vernon Street, a block north of UUA headquarters. The UUA also owns the Eliot and Pickett Houses at 6 and 7 Mount Vernon Place, a bed and breakfast immediately behind the headquarters building. (Go to an interactive map of the UUA’s properties.)

The purchase of the Hebrew College building, if it happens, would have several benefits. The Hebrew College building, about 10 years old, is “expansive, modern, green, and boasts up-to-date technology,” Morales said. It has around 70,000 square feet, compared to around 25,000 each in 25 Beacon and 41 Mount Vernon. Hebrew College is a two-story building, while 25 Beacon and 41 Mount Vernon have six floors each. The Eliot and Pickett Houses, two buildings used as one, also have six floors covering 12,000 square feet.

The Eliot and Pickett Houses were built as townhouses in 1899. 41 Mount Vernon Street was built as an office building in 1917. The American Unitarian Association built 25 Beacon as its headquarters in 1925–1927.

Michael O’Herron, the UUA’s director of operations, said a lot of money and time go into maintaining the UUA’s old buildings. Because they are in a historic district, there are also restrictions on replacing doors and windows for energy efficiency. “It can be pretty challenging,” he said. A newer building could be more energy efficient and easier to maintain, he said, but could also cost more to clean if it is larger than current spaces.

O’Herron said about 70 staff work at 25 Beacon and the same number at 41 Mount Vernon. The Beacon Hill buildings are not as accessible as a 10-year-old building would be, and there is also virtually no parking for the current buildings.

The Hebrew College building, at 160 Herrick Road in Newton, was designed by architect Moshe Safdie, whose other projects include the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. According to the Boston Globe, Hebrew College is selling the building as part of a deal with its creditors to eliminate $32 million in debt. It will move into leased space at Andover Newton.

UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan said that the City of Boston had assessed 25 Beacon at $5.8 million, 41 Mount Vernon at $3 million, and 6–7 Mount Vernon Place at $2.7 million. “If we get into it further we’ll bring in an expert real estate appraiser to help us figure out the range.”

Brennan said the next step is to wait for Hebrew College to actually put the building on the market. “We’ll see what the asking price is and go from there.” He noted the building is a V shape composed primarily of classrooms and a library. “We’d have to bring in an architect so that the property could be converted to our use. So there are a lot of steps along the way.”

Morales told UU World that the administration had not been seeking a building. When the Hebrew College building became available, however, it seemed worth investigating, he said. The major benefit of moving to a building like Hebrew College is not economic, Morales said, but rather that it would permit the UUA staff to be consolidated in one building. He added, “As a president who will be gone from here after my time in office, I do not have a priority to move the headquarters. That decision is up to the Association.”

The last time the UUA sold property on Beacon Hill was in 2000 when it sold Skinner House, 8 Mount Vernon Place. The UUA sold the building, which had served as Beacon Press’s home for three decades, when neighbors objected to a UUA plan to expand its bed-and-breakfast operation to the general public.

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