On a quiet corner in the South End, amid handsome town houses that sell for millions, stands a sturdy old building. Vines cling to its brick walls. Boards cover most of its windows. Through one of the few that’s left, you can see a collapsed drop ceiling, a hint of what might be inside. The only clue to its history is the proud yellow sign — Sahara Syrian Restaurant. It closed in 1970 and has sat unused, but for storage, ever since. Its owners — three brothers who own a small market up the street — say they’ve no plans for the place.
The Sahara — opened in 1847 as a German Lutheran church and later part of a thriving Syrian neighborhood in this section of the South End — feels like some relic of an older Boston, resisting waves of new development and spiffy rehabs that have washed through the blocks around it.
But if The Sahara is an heirloom, it’s not as rare as you might think. All over town, buildings sit empty, somehow unused despite a fierce shortage of housing and a long-running development boom that has transformed long-quiet patches of the city into hot property.
They’re downtown, and in torrid corners of Cambridge, tucked among brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue and holding down prime spots in neighborhoods across the city. Some are better kept than others. Some have more prestigious addresses. But each is a puzzle unto its own. “There are these cool little gems hiding around the city,” says Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “You come across one and you say, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ”
Usually, the answer is one of three things.
Sometimes there’s a family dispute; siblings inherit a building and can’t decide what to do with it. So it sits. That’s a common fate for smaller apartment buildings and old storefronts around the city. Other times a lawsuit or permitting issues are blocking redevelopment, sometimes for years — that’s one reason the massive Middlesex County courthouse in Cambridge has sat empty for half a decade as development booms around it.
But oftentimes, it boils down to economics. An owner will sit on a building, “land banking,” as brokers put it, betting that prices will rise enough to make it worth selling someday. Or they want to redevelop but can’t finance it, the costs of renovation exceeding what the finished product would command in rent.
It’s a puzzle Kathy Kottaridis wrestles with daily. She’s head of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit that redevelops older buildings. Over the years, it’s done a bunch, from the Old Corner Bookstore in Downtown Crossing to the Alvah Kittredge House in Roxbury. But Kottaridis says choosing the structures to save must be done with great care. The buildings must be of historic significance, and projects should boost the neighborhoods around them. Subsidies — such as federal historic tax credits — can help finance construction. But ultimately the building needs to stand on its own foundation. “They’ve got to perform in a modern context once they’re done,” Kottaridis says. “Sometimes, getting there can be very expensive.”
Still, success stories abound. Since 1997, the city has tracked so-called distressed buildings — vacant properties with code violations — and by 2015 that number had fallen 80 percent, as empty storefronts and three-deckers were brought back to life. (Boston changed how it tracks these properties in 2016, making counts since then harder to compare.) Prominent vacant buildings all over the city have finally been redone. The long-empty Hoffman Building on Lovejoy Wharf became headquarters of shoemaker Converse. General Electric Co. is restoring two empty warehouses in Fort Point for its Boston home. “Step back and look at the Boston of 20 or 30 years ago. There were a lot of these derelict buildings that no one knew what to do with,” Kottaridis says. “A lot of them have been turned around.”
Maybe up next is the Hotel Alexandra.
The century-and-a-half-old hotel is on Massachusetts Avenue where the South End meets Roxbury. It has sat mostly empty for decades, with water damage and fires warping the insides even as its grand facade beckoned for a rescuer. “I’ve been driving by this thing for years,” says local developer Thomas Calus. “I always thought if I ever had the opportunity to acquire it, I’d jump.”
Eventually he did. Calus and two partners have a deal with the Church of Scientology — which once envisioned the Alexandra as its local headquarters — to buy the old hotel and put a new one there. Their plan would keep the building’s five-story facade — restoring it will cost an estimated $6 million to $7 million — as part of a 12-story glass tower on the property and an adjacent parcel of land. This sort of modern twist on history has been used to revive a number of older buildings around town, and is the only approach that made economic sense, says Jas Bhogal, one of Calus’s partners.
“We loved the old architecture of this building and we wanted to save it,” Bhogal says. “To do that, we had to figure out what was going to work there, and what it was going to cost.”
Other buildings appear further from salvation, like the J.R. Alley Brewery, also known as the Eblana Brewery, built in the 1880s in Mission Hill. The huge brick complex on Heath Street has been empty for about 15 years, last used for auto parts assembly. Plans for lofts there crashed in the recession, and the building was bought by new owners led by developer Peter Zagorianakos, who said he’d knock the brewery down and put apartments on the 2-acre site. Those plans, too, have been dormant for years now; Zagorianakos hasn’t said much to neighbors and recently told the Globe he’d “rather not” discuss the building.
Today, the brewery’s grounds are used for parking, but there are gaping holes where some upper windows used to be, and skinny trees grow from its roof. Boston Preservation Alliance’s Galer warns of “demolition by neglect,” and Preservation Massachusetts, citing its “ornate architecture,” listed it among the 11 most endangered buildings in the state for 2018.
A broad, if gentle, campaign by some in the neighborhood aims to coax Zagorianakos to redevelop the building, or sell it to someone who will. A few years ago members of Friends of Historic Mission Hill stood outside on several weekends asking passersby what they’d like to see happen with the property. What they heard, says longtime Friends member Alison Pultinas, was people wanted a place to work, good jobs close to home, the kind of thing that fell away as industry left the neighborhood. “From what I know about the developer, his interest is housing,” she says. “That was not something that people were focused on.”
The informal survey offers a good reminder, she says, that the easiest way to bring a building back to life — in this case high-end housing — may not always be best for the people who live around it. Even crumbling and empty buildings serve a purpose in a new Boston where so much is shiny and fresh. Such structures can draw attention to parts of the city where “not everything is bright and rosy,” Pultinas says. “Maybe we need that reminder sometimes.”
176 Lincoln Street, Brighton
When built: 2001
Last occupied: Formerly a moving company warehouse, it was redeveloped for a telecom company that went belly up before construction finished. It has never been occupied.
Owner: Harvard University
Why is it vacant? Plans to market the massive space to tech, biotech, and office users never panned out and Harvard bought it in 2006 as part of its broader expansion in the area. A land swap with the Boston Skating Club approved in 2015 fell through.
Prospects: Earlier this month, Harvard said it will partner with real estate firm Berkeley Investments to redevelop the site. Berkeley aims to file preliminary plans with the city this summer.
Sahara Syrian Restaurant
296 Shawmut Avenue, South End
When built: 1847
Last occupied: The Sahara, a remnant of the South End’s once-sizable Syrian population, closed in 1970. The building, originally a Lutheran church, has been vacant since.
Owner: The Mansour family
Why is it vacant? The Mansours also own a Syrian grocery store on the same block and use the old restaurant for storage. They’ve had offers from developers but never chose to sell, says Ramon Mansour.
Prospects: Mansour says the building remains in good condition — “It’s a solid building. When they built churches, they built them to last” — but his family has no plans to sell or develop it.
Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse and former Middlesex Jail
40 Thorndike Street, Cambridge
When built: 1971
Last occupied: The last prisoners were transferred to Billerica one weekend in 2014.
Owner: Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Why is it vacant? A deal to sell the 22-story Brutalist tower to development firm Leggat McCall for redevelopment as an office building was tied up in lawsuits for several years.
Prospects: Leggat McCall is seeking final City Council approval for the project and hopes to start work by year’s end. But critics say the publicly-owned building should become affordable housing, or a park.
J.R. Alley Brewery (Eblana Brewery)
123 Heath Street, Mission Hill
When built: 1885-1886
Last occupied: 2004. Brewing operations ended during Prohibition but the building later housed soft drink bottling, warehousing, and manufacturing operations.
Owner: Triad Alpha Partners, of Boston
Why is it vacant? Plans to convert the complex to loft apartments fell through during the real estate crash of 2008. New owners planned to tear it down and build apartments on the 2-acre site, but preservationists have urged reuse of the existing buildings and there has been no movement in several years.
Prospects: Unclear. The building’s owner declined comment.
51 High Street, Downtown
When built: 1899
Last occupied: Longtime tenant Hardware Outlet Co. closed in the mid-2000s and it has sat empty since.
Owner: Chesterton Properties, of Medford, which public records indicate is owned in part by Elizabeth Grady Cos.’ CEO John Walsh.
Why is it vacant? The building is just 25 feet wide, which limits potential reuses. Proposals to put a tower on the site would require complex permitting.
Prospects: Chesterton has put it up for sale several times but no deal has been reached. Broker Michael Carucci says the owner is waiting for a better offer. A “For Sale” sign remains above the front door.
482 Commonwealth Avenue
When built: 1898
Last occupied: Kenmore Square institution Nuggets records moved out about 25 years ago and the building has been empty since.
Owner: Has been held in a family trust since the 1970s.
Why is it vacant? Unclear. People familiar with the building say its owners — siblings — disagree over what to do with it.
Prospects: Hard to say. Attempts to reach the building’s owners were not successful.
631 Massachusetts Avenue, Roxbury
When built: 1875
Last occupied: The hotel closed in the 1970s, though there were stores at street-level until earlier this year.
Owner: The Church of Scientology has owned it since 2008, but has a deal to sell it to new owners.
Why is it vacant? Fires and decades of disuse have damaged upper floors. The Scientologists abandoned plans for a Boston headquarters there and put it up for sale in 2015.
Prospects: A team of local developers has an agreement to buy the building, restore its historic facade, and build a 12-story boutique hotel. Those plans are currently moving through city and neighborhood review.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the location of 176 Lincoln Street. It is in Brighton on the border with Allston.