Nonprofits’ future cloudy as their Beacon Street home is sold
For decades, the building atop Beacon Hill that houses the historic library of the Congregational church has also housed dozens of small social service and advocacy groups that wanted a home close to the action in downtown Boston.
But maybe not for much longer.
The American Congregational Association this week closed a deal to sell its longtime home at 14 Beacon St. to the real estate firm Faros Properties, for $25.4 million, according to deeds filed in Suffolk County.
That’s money the Congregational Library — which negotiated a deal to stay put in the building after the sale — will use to sustain its reading room, which includes rare documents that date to the founding of Massachusetts. But many of the shoestring-budget nonprofits that occupy office space upstairs are worried they’ll soon be priced out.
“There’s a lot of concern about what this is going to mean for these nonprofits and the people they serve,” said Toni Troop, director of communications at Jane Doe, one of about 30 nonprofits and advocacy groups that have long paid below-market rents for space in the building. “We get that this is prime real estate, but things aren’t always about money.”
Faros, which is co-led by Alexander and Jeremy Leventhal — sons of veteran Boston developer Alan Leventhal — specializes in upgrading older office buildings. The company hasn’t yet decided what it might do at 14 Beacon, Alex Leventhal said Thursday.
“We’re excited,” said Leventhal, whose firm in 2014 bought and renovated nearby 20 Ashburton Place. “It’s a beautiful building with tremendous potential and a great location.”
The Congregationalists are the latest in a string of nonprofits to sell historic homes on Beacon Hill, following the Appalachian Mountain Club last year and the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2014. The group built the eight-story brick building in 1898 as a library and sort of central office for its famously non-hierarchical churches. A plaque by the front door declares its “primary purpose . . . is to provide housing for Congregational societies and other religious and charitable organizations.”
For decades, many church groups occupied its warrens of wood-paneled offices above the library. But after the Congregational headquarters were moved from Boston to New York in 1957, the site became home to a wide range of nonprofits and advocacy groups, who prized its cheap rents and proximity to the State House.
But the possibility of a sale has long been on the table, said Peggy Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library. It doesn’t make sense for a small religious library to use its meager resources maintaining a big old office building, she noted.
“This is a 100-year-old building with original plumbing,” Bendroth said this week in her office deep within the library’s stacks. “And look at the windows.”
The association listed the building for sale in 2007, Bendroth said, but the ensuing real estate crash put that on hold. Last fall, it tried again, and received strong interest from a range of buyers. It sold to Faros, in part, because of the Leventhals’ deep roots in Boston real estate and philanthropic history, Bendroth said.
“We were really looking for a buyer who would recognize what this building means in Boston,” she said. “They communicated to us that they would love to opportunity to take care of it.”
As part of the deal, the Congregational Library itself will stay put, and even expand slightly. The association signed a lease with Faros that could last 100 years, according to a document filed in Suffolk County. It plans to use the proceeds from the sale to fund programming and to help maintain a collection that includes documents that date to the 1600s and the earliest days of Massachusetts.
“This is really a mission-driven decision,” Bendroth said. “This building is our endowment.”
In the offices upstairs, however, the future is less clear.
Leaders of several of the groups who rent space in the building said they’ve heard little from Faros, beyond brief meetings with a property manager. Those who have looked elsewhere for space quickly realized their current rents — several said they pay around $25 per square foot a year — are perhaps half the going rate for smaller, older downtown office spaces.
For groups that operate on “love and duct tape,” as Shay Stewart-Bouley, executive director of Community Change Inc., put it, doubling the real estate budget for rent isn’t in the cards.
“What might seem like a reasonable increase to some companies would take a big bite out of us,” said Stewart-Bouley, whose group has five employees — four of them part-time — and an annual budget of about $200,000. “If our rent goes up to market rate, that could mean someone’s job.”
And while rents might be cheaper in outlying neighborhoods, 14 Beacon’s location is “perfect,” Troop said — steps from the State House and close to City Hall and other power centers. It’s also near major MBTA stops, so the people the groups serve can conveniently get to the organizations. And, several people noted, having a bunch of social service and advocacy groups in one place builds connections and a sense of community.
“We’re like a citywide coalition of social service groups here,” said Kathy Brown, coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition. “To see that being broken apart would be unfortunate.”
Some tenants who have talked with the new owners remain hopeful about a future on Beacon Street. Libby Hayes, executive director of homeless advocacy group Homes for Families, said Faros told her it doesn’t plan to gut the building for an expensive rehab, or turn it into luxury condos.
Indeed, Leventhal said his firm plans to keep 14 Beacon as an office building and would like existing tenants to stay, if possible. He wouldn’t rule out rent hikes, but said he wants to craft leases that make sense for the nonprofits, too.
“We want to try to have people stay, and work out deals with anybody we can,” he said. “It’s going to be a process.”