- May 25, 2006
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LinkThe Globe said:Church looking to redevelop
Christian Scientists will solicit proposals from urban planners for unused land on their campus
By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff | October 17, 2006
The First Church of Christ, Scientist said yesterday it plans to redevelop portions of its 14-acre property in Boston's Back Bay, including possible construction of new buildings, as it looks to unload unused space and make money on its prime location.
The church's new plans may lead to alterations to the unusual open campus designed in the 1960s by the firm of renowned architect I.M. Pei, a location that, with its reflecting pool and fountain, is one of Boston's most visually recognizable sites and a popular tourist attraction.
In interviews yesterday, church officials said that in a month or so they will solicit proposals from urban planners and architects that could result in the addition of office or residential space on the largely open block between the Prudential Center and Symphony Hall in the Back Bay.
``We're not sure what this is going to look like in the end," said Philip G. Davis, manager of the Committees on Publication, the department that speaks for the church.
As part of the plan, church officials will consolidate all its employees into its publishing building, which would free up as many as three other buildings for reuse or redevelopment.
The spacious campus and buildings were designed by architect Araldo A. Cossutta, who was with the firm of I.M. Pei and Partners, as part of urban renewal around the historic church.
The property is governed by a special institutional zoning plan that allows new structures of up to 75 feet tall, and in some cases up to 115 feet. But Barbara Burley, the church's senior manager of real estate planning and operations, expects the final proposals will likely be for bigger buildings.
``We would be asking for something in excess of those height restrictions, whatever they are," she said, adding that neighbors and the public will be involved in the planning.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist emphasizes healing through prayer rather than medicine. Officials say more revenue from real estate would allow them to better perform their mission.
Executives said they are committed to maintaining the wide public use of the space, characterized by the broad, open plaza, reflecting pool, and fountain that separate the church's structures.
``The church recognizes the value of this space to the community," Davis said. A small Sunday School building near Horticultural Hall also could be redeveloped; the church owns both buildings.
Alex Krieger of Chan Krieger Associates, a Cambridge architectural firm, said redesigning the church's campus ``would be an extremely tough assignment one could easily botch up."
``There's something very pristine and elegant about the composition, very classical," he said. But he added: ``In the abstract you can always imagine some masterful solution that would maintain the integrity of the buildings and open space."
Church officials have reached out to Cossutta to see if he wants to be involved in the redesign, according to Nancy Sterling of ML Strategies, which is advising them on real estate matters. ``He seems amenable to continuing the conversation," she said.
In a statement, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the church's planning effort shows its ``strong commitment to our city." A Boston Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman, Susan Elsbree, said the city would benefit because any new buildings would likely pay property taxes, unlike church property.
Davis and other church officials said the 500 remaining employees of the church will be housed in the nine-floor Publishing House building on Massachusetts Avenue. Employees will be moved from the 26-floor Huntington Avenue tower known as the Administration building and the elongated, five-story Colonnade building, which runs along the plaza, with its pool and fountain.
The church has faced periods of financial hardship, but Davis described the current situation as ``stable," with steady contributions since 1993 despite declining membership.
Davis said the church has ruled out selling land but is leaving open the possibility of leasing to a developer for construction of a building. Boston has little office space in the pipeline , and the demand for space is growing. A 550-car garage lies below the property.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist will maintain the mother church -- actually two churches, dating from just before and after the turn of the 20th century -- as well as its Publishing House building and library, named after church founder Mary Baker Eddy, as they are.
The plaza, with its sweeping water feature , will continue to be public space but may be enhanced.
``How many months out of the year is it usable?" asked Davis. ``There might be a better use in the winter as a skating pool."
Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.