The one thing they all seem to agree on is that the North End, one of Boston’s most historic and vibrant neighborhoods, needs a new community center.
But the conundrum of where to put it, and more importantly what to do with the old one — a 1900s bathhouse that became a beacon for immigrants who came to define the neighborhood — has divided this close-knit community and put pressure on Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration to resolve the disagreement.
“The big question is, ‘how much is the city willing to spend on this [center]?,” said Matt Conti, who runs a hyperlocal website, northendwaterfront.com, and has watched the debate take hold in the neighborhood.
The rift started in earnest in October, when residents first heard the city was exploring the sale of the Nazzaro Community Center on North Bennett Street. The administration had quietly identified the facility as a possible site for a private housing development, and a city consultant disclosed during a community meeting that month that the administration had commissioned a commercial appraisal of the property ($8 million).
The consultant had recommended building a center in a different spot in the neighborhood or outright demolishing the Nazzaro and erecting another in the same place.
Since then, a Save the Nazzaro campaign has collected more than 1,400 signatures on petitions to either keep the building for public use, even if not a community center, or have the building façade declared a historic landmark (which would protect it from demolition). But that effort has run into opposition from residents who say a new community center with modern amenities is far more important for the neighborhood, even if that means selling the Nazzaro for private use to help pay for it.
Now, the onus is back on the Walsh administration, which will have to weigh how to finance a community center that could cost in excess of $40 million — one that it has already committed to developing — and how the Nazzaro’s fate will play out in that decision.
“There never was a serious discussion of whether this was a good trade-off,” said Ellen Hume, who cofounded the Save the Nazzaro coalition. “This is not just a random public building, this is a source of neighborhood pride.”
Patrick Brophy, the mayor’s chief of operations, said in an interview that the administration is committed to building a state-of-the-art center in the North End, similar to those built recently in East Boston and Roxbury. That will likely be a new building, he said. The city consultant’s review found that the Nazzaro could no longer meet the demands for a new center — even a new building on that site would not be big enough — and so the city has looked at other areas, possibly on the waterfront.
“What we’re trying to do here is create opportunities for young people and community residents to have adequate space, as opposed to something that is outdated and no longer meets the programming needs of today’s society,” he said.
Brophy said that the new center would be financed independently of any consideration of the Nazzaro, under the city’s capital spending plan and that the future of the old building would be shaped by public input. But that process would not begin until final plans for the new community center are laid out, he said.
“We would certainly have a conversation about what we want to see at the Nazzaro Center,” he said, adding that there have been no official discussions about selling it to a developer.
Supporters of the Nazzaro said they fear its fate has already been determined, with the commitment to build a center elsewhere and the identification of the Nazzaro as a housing opportunity.
“I think there are better options out there,” said Kirsten Hoffman, another cofounder of the Save the Nazzaro coalition, and a member of the city’s Landmarks Commission. She said the Nazzaro “from a historical aspect, is really priceless.”
The debate highlights the frequent urban struggle between the need to meet a community’s growing demands for services against its desire to preserve its history — especially when longtime institutions are targeted for private housing developments. The North End over the last several decades has seen several older buildings converted into condominium units, including the old Christopher Columbus High School (Hume now lives there).
The Gate of Heaven Roman Catholic community in South Boston recently went through similar soul-searching before deciding to demolish an aging school — after a plan to sell it for housing development was opposed by neighbors — so that it could afford repairs to the adjacent church.
Daniel Toscano, a lifelong North End resident and a member of the Nazzaro Community Center board of directors, said that the need for a new center has become clear, even if it means the end of the Nazzaro: There are some 100 youngsters on a waiting list for community programs; the local basketball team uses a facility in East Boston as its home court, because the one at the Nazzaro does not meet regulations; there are leaks in the building; the weight room and gym are aging.
“It’s old,” he said, adding that a growth of new families in the North End has amplified the demand. “Wherever it’s going to be, it’s much-needed.”
But those who support keeping the Nazzaro said the Walsh administration is in a position to preserve the community use of an architecturally attractive, city-owned building that has a history of public service. The Nazzaro was first commissioned in 1907 by then-Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald to serve as a bathhouse for a wave of immigrants that had taken hold in the neighborhood.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, who grew up attending programs at the Nazzaro, said he opposes the demolition of the building, recognizing its personal history to many, but he said the need for a new center is real. He said city officials could work with residents and possibly revisit the original consultant’s report on available locations by perhaps keeping some services at the Nazzaro, such as senior programming.
“It’s healthy for the community to have this conversation, because the neighborhood has changed,” he said, “And we have a need for more facilities.”
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents the area, agreed that the city does not need to take an either/or approach. If the Nazzaro is sold, it could be sold to a “creative” developer, she said, who would commit to use it as public space.
The council would be involved in that process, she said.
But she cautioned that the process of finding a new community center and determining the fate of the Nazzaro is still in its infant stages. She said the city could be more open with residents to reach a goal that would develop a new center, and preserve the Nazzaro.
“The process needs to be transparent, to build trust, and I think there’s an opportunity to do that,” she said. “When you have space like this, and it’s publicly open, it should continue to be a gathering space for the North End.”