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City set to approve controversial sale of Harriet Tubman House to condo developer

The developer wants to convert the Harriet Tubman House building into 66 condos. Rendering/J. Garland Enterprises

The Boston Planning & Development Agency is poised Thursday to approve the hotly contested sale of the Harriet Tubman House in the South End, so it can be redeveloped into condominiums.

United South End Settlements, which owns the building at the corner of Columbus and Massachusetts avenues and runs youth and social service programs there, says it needs to sell to raise money to stay afloat. The 57-year-old nonprofit’s endowment dwindled below $900,000 in 2018, from $3.1 million four years earlier — according to tax returns — and it says the Tubman House needs millions of dollars in repairs and maintenance. Earlier this year, the nonprofit reached a deal to sell the property to developer New Boston Ventures for an as-yet-undisclosed price. The company wants to convert the building into 66 condos. The nonprofit plans to move its operations to a site on nearby Rutland Street.


“We would not be selling this building if the survival of the organization was not at stake,” settlements board chairwoman Julia Johannsen wrote in a letter in September. “We are painfully aware of the strong, long-standing ties many have to this space.”

Those connections had been made clear through vocal opposition to the sale from some neighborhood residents. They say the Tubman House is an anchor in the South End and Lower Roxbury communities, particularly for longtime lower-income residents in a neighborhood that has become vastly more wealthy in recent decades. They note the planning agency initially sold the nonprofit the site for use as a community center, and argue the Tubman House should be preserved — perhaps by the city or another nonprofit — as a home for social service agencies that have been there since it opened in 1976.

“The center serves a function which Boston needs to support — a place where diverse individuals can seek the education, support and neighborhood relations that are critical to the life of a city,” Mass. Avenue resident Lloyd Fillion wrote in a letter to the BPDA opposing the sale. “What the South End does not need are more market-rate condos.”


In recent months, the agency has been reviewing both the nonprofit’s plan to sell the property and New Boston’s plans for condos. It’s on the agenda of the agency’s board meeting Thursday afternoon at City Hall.

If the deal goes through, United South End Settlements would join a growing list of Boston nonprofits — universities, arts organizations, and social service agencies — that are selling their historic properties in this hot real estate market to help fund and grow operations.

Under an agreement with New Boston, the nonprofit would maintain a smaller community center in ground-floor space in the new building, and social service agency tenants that rent space in the Tubman House would be relocated. The building New Boston plans would also include 11 units of affordable artist housing and would retain or reproduce the historic mural that wraps the Tubman House’s outside walls.

The Tubman House won’t be the only controversial project on BPDA’s agenda Thursday. The board is also scheduled to vote on the massive redevelopment of a Stop & Shop along the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston, near New Balance’s headquarters.

That project, dubbed Allston Yards, would put 868 apartments and condos, along with an office building and supermarket, on the 10.6-acre site of the Stop & Shop and its parking lot. It would be one of the largest new housing developments in the city, and has drawn concern from some in that corner of Allston about traffic and density.


The agency will also consider a proposal for a 391-room hotel at the corner of Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue in Kenmore Square. It would re-orient the street grid and bring a flatiron-shaped tower to what is one of the city’s busiest intersections when the Red Sox are playing.

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.