A sign outside the former St. James African Orthodox Church on Cedar Street in Highland Park last week called the building “property of Roxbury’s Black and Immigrant history.”
While the words might have served as a reminder of the two congregations that once called the now-empty church home, the paper banner — affixed to the fence with masking tape — was more likely directed at the real estate company that intends to raze the structure to build condos.
“We have to keep some sense of home and some sense of history,” said Kristen Willis, a longtime Highland Park resident, as she gazed up at the church on a recent weekday afternoon.
But the future of the building — with its tarp-covered roof and peeling paint — is in limbo, caught among neighbors seeking to preserve it, the development company that owns the property, and a slow-moving city bureaucracy.
City Realty Group, which bought the building and its land in 2015, intends to raze the structure but must wait until a city-mandated demolition delay ends on July 9. Last week, residents successfully appealed to the Boston Landmark Commission to “further study” the building as a potential landmark — a designation that would prevent the developer from taking it down. But the study doesn’t protect the building from demolition once the demolition delay ends, and it could take months for the commission to reach a final decision on the church.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty, Curtis Perrin, who filed the petition, said the commission’s move to study the building was “great” news and “shows where the people of Boston’s sentiments lie.”
“This a building that has a dual record both in its connection to the civil rights movement and the story it tells of urban immigrant experience in the United States,” he said.
City Realty Group, which purchased the property through 5050 LLC, did not return several requests for comment.
In the last few years, City Realty Group has presented two development plans for the space to the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition, said the coalition’s secretary, Jon Ellertson. But despite maintaining some or all of the church, neither of the proposals satisfied neighbors who are seeking a way to preserve the building for some kind of community use, Ellertson said.
A third proposal — one that would demolish the church completely — was presented at a city hearing in April.
“We saw that City Realty seemed to be much more interested in how many new units of housing they could put on this parcel,” Ellertson said. “When you looked at what they were saying or doing or failing to do, we felt that preservation was not on their agenda.”
Central to resident concerns about losing the building are what they describe as the church’s role in Roxbury’s history. First built for a Norwegian congregation in 1910, the building later housed a branch of the African Orthodox Church, which has close ties to civil rights activist Marcus Garvey. The Norwegian congregation sold the building to the AOC in 1955, but the Free Evangelical Church of America still considers the Cedar Street building to be its “mother church.”
Lynn Smiledge, chairwoman of the city’s landmark commission, said that the neighbors’ petition “certainly” showed potential for proving the building’s historic significance. But she said the commission cannot accelerate its approval process — even with the 90-day demolition delay ending soon.
Organizers cited a Change.org petition to preserve the church building that had garnered nearly 2,700 signatures, although the group’s official petition to the commission had support from 14 people.
‘We have to keep some sense of home and some sense of history.’
The commission has agreed to study the petition and produce a report on the site before deciding whether landmark status is warranted. Criteria include links to “outstanding” historical figures or significant connections to the city’s cultural, political, economic, military, or social history.
State Representative Byron Rushing, who wrote a letter supporting the landmark petition, said that the church is representative of different eras of Roxbury’s history and is a good example of the many lives a building can have being the centerpiece of an ethnic or racial community.
“It’s very rare that church buildings are torn down, and when they are torn down people regret it,” Rushing said.
In the meantime, a listing for a future building on the property has been placed on Redfin, a real estate sales website. It shows the same rendering the developer presented at the April demolition hearing.
Zachary Conley, the realtor who posted the listing, did not respond to a request for comment.
Additionally, the neighborhood’s coalition has been working to have the area designated as an Architectural Conservation District, which would give local residents more control over redevelopment projects, according to Perrin. This would protect the whole neighborhood from major changes without resident approval, even for buildings that would never qualify as landmarks.
That petition also remains under study, according to the commission. Still, Perrin said he is hopeful.
“I think that the outcome is still uncertain,” he said. “We still have to be vigilant and I think that there’s room now for an outcome besides demolishing the building.”Jamie Halper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.