Nonprofit could reap big profit in sale of its Back Bay building
Another Boston civic institution is putting its historic home up for sale.
YW Boston — formerly known as the YWCA — said Wednesday that it will put its 13-story building on Clarendon Street in the Back Bay on the market, a sale that real estate experts say could fetch about $50 million for the nonprofit.
YW executives said managing the building had become a distraction from the group’s modern core mission — combating racism and empowering women. And cashing in on the city’s hot real estate market, they said, will help it finance that mission for decades to come.
“It’s certainly a difficult decision to leave the building,” CEO Beth Chandler said. “This is really about what’s best for the organization. Wherever we end up, as long as we’re able to best focus on our mission, that’s really what matters.”
Still, it will be the end of an era for a building the YWCA built in the late 1920s to provide housing, classes, and social services to young women in Boston. The Clarendon Street building opened to great fanfare in 1929, its upper floors full of efficiency apartments — including a private club residence for women — and the lower ones filled with offices, classrooms, and the city’s first women’s swimming pool.
The 174,000-square-foot building was fully renovated in the early 2000s and today features 118 apartments — 79 of them affordable, the rest market-rate studios — a small hotel, and a variety of commercial and nonprofit tenants, including the Lyric Stage theater group and Boston Public Schools’ Snowden International High School.
YW officials and the building’s management company this week have been notifying tenants of the planned sale. They say it’s too early to know what a new owner might want to do with the property. The affordable housing, Chandler said, will stay in place for about another 30 years, under the terms of its financing. Other tenants have leases that will need to be honored in any sale, she said.
Spiro Veloudos, producing artistic director at the Lyric Stage, said he found out about the sale Tuesday as he prepared to audition a show for next season. He hasn’t had much time to think about what the deal might mean for his organization, which rents offices, rehearsal space, and its 244-seat theater. But the organization’s lease runs through 2026, so Veloudos figures he’s got some time.
“We’re not 100 percent concerned just yet,” he said. “We’re sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude.”
Still, Veloudos knows changes will eventually come to the building, which he called “truly mixed-use” with its cocktail of housing, hotel guests, and offices for nonprofits. Rehearsal space, in particular, can be hard to find for small performing arts groups, he said, and Lyric Stage — which has been in the building since 1991 — has been able to share its practice rooms with a range of groups.
Running the building took time and effort for YW’s staff, Chandler said, time it would rather spend running programs, which focus mainly on citywide training around diversity and inclusion. That’s a big change from the days when the YWCA provided housing and social services to domestic workers in Boston.
“Our mission used to be building-bound. We had training needs, housing needs,” she said. “Now our mission is very different. . . . We want to be able to go meet the people where they are.”
Selling the property should significantly boost the nonprofit’s finances — publicly available tax returns show YW’s expenses have significantly outpaced revenue in recent years — and allow it to grow the 17-person staff.
It’s the latest in a string of venerable Boston nonprofits that have sold their longtime homes in recent years, from the Appalachian Mountain Club to the American Congregational Association to various colleges that have put buildings up for sale. Indeed, in 2011 the YWCA sold another building — at 40 Berkeley St. in the South End — that was recently repurposed as a boutique hotel. The deals are a reflection of the city’s real estate market, said Rob Griffin, head of capital markets at real estate firm Newmark Knight Frank, which is brokering the sale.
“The ground and the buildings have become so valuable, and a lot of these organizations are in need of capital,” he said. “A lot of it is being done to help them grow.”
As for potential buyers, Griffin said, he expects interest from the type of investors who might hold a building for decades: wealthy individuals or local real estate firms. In the short term, its potential for wholesale redevelopment is limited by the affordable apartments and long-term leases with some commercial tenants. Also, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making major exterior changes less likely. But, he said, it holds an interesting mix of tenants and sits in a spot whose value is increasing.
“What they’re looking for is very creative ideas,” Griffin said. “It’s a unique building and probably one of the best locations in the whole city.”
Whether the building’s future includes YW Boston remains to be seen. The organization might stay put after a sale, Chandler said, but that will largely be up to the new owner. Either way, she hopes selling the nonprofit’s home of nearly a century will set it up to thrive for another century.
“At the end of the day, it’s a building,” she said. “You can kind of get trapped by the things you own.”