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Lesley pushes ahead with Art Institute plan

To move school to Cambridge

A rendering of the planned Art Institute of Boston (left of the church). Officials hope to break ground in the fall or winter. A rendering of the planned Art Institute of Boston (left of the church). Officials hope to break ground in the fall or winter. (Courtesy of Lesley University)
By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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Lesley University is moving forward in its bid to unite its arts college in Boston with the rest of the school in Cambridge, a plan that has been in the works since 2007.

Earlier this month, the Cambridge Planning Board granted Lesley a special permit, the final regulatory hurdle the university needed to clear to start construction of a new Art Institute of Boston on the grounds of the old North Prospect Church in Porter Square. Lesley officials hope to break ground on the project this fall or next winter.

Since the institute merged with Lesley in 1998, students have had to rely on shuttle buses or other means to commute between the institute’s Kenmore Square location and Lesley’s Cambridge campus.

“From my point of view, it makes the university whole,’’ said Joseph B. Moore, the president of Lesley. “The arts as a whole is the second largest enrollment area in the university, and having this arts facility benefits the students and the faculty. . . . It strengthens our programs and strengthens our connections to the community, both among artists and people who appreciate the role that the arts play.’’

The new Art Institute of Boston will be a modern glass building constructed alongside a 166-year-old wooden clapboard church. The school plans to preserve the church, but will move it to a corner of its property.

Lesley purchased the church in 2006 after its congregation merged with a church in Medford, said Bill Dancaster, a spokesman for the university.

The Cambridge City Council approved a zoning change for the church site in June 2009, and the Cambridge Historical Commission signed off last month, Lesley said in a statement.

“Cambridge is an inspiring environment for young artists to practice, learn, and present their work,’’ said Stan Trecker, dean of the Art Institute. “It’s a city with a real commitment to the arts, a highly effective and engaged Arts Council, and a community of working artists who contribute to the vibrancy of the neighborhoods.’’

Trecker said he hopes the new Arts Institute becomes “a major part of the Cambridge arts community.’’

“Over many years, we’ve had discussions with them, and as plans have been developing I’ve found them very, very satisfactory,’’ said Stephen Diamond, who sits on the board of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council in the area where the institute will open. “I believe it will be an asset to the neighborhood and to the city of Cambridge.’’

Diamond said Lesley has been transparent throughout the process and has sent representatives to community meetings over the past several years.

The project has not been without controversy. In a lawsuit argued before the Massachusetts Land Court in May, four neighbors of the church property at 1797-1803 Massachusetts Ave. said the Cambridge City Council passed illegal zoning laws intended to make building requirements more lenient for Lesley’s properties. The same plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit a few weeks ago, alleging the Historical Commission improperly endorsed the project. Both suits are pending.

In the first suit, the neighbors, the city, and the university have asked the Land Court for summary judgment to settle the dispute. Legal counsel for the neighbors could not be reached last night.

This would not be the first time the church was moved. It was built in 1845 on the site of what is now Harvard University’s Littauer Hall. It was moved about a mile north to Porter Square in 1867 by a team of oxen.

The church will be used as an art library, which will be open to the public, with art studios on the second floor, Dancaster said. The new building was designed by Bruner/Cott Architects, based in Cambridge, he said.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.