A heavenly match? The only obstacle is money

Newton arts groups see shuttered Catholic college as a potential home

A view of the former Aquinas College; the building in the foreground houses the Rashi School and an auditorium. A view of the former Aquinas College; the building in the foreground houses the Rashi School and an auditorium.
Email|Print| Text size + By Ralph Ranalli
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

If money weren't an issue, it would be hard to imagine two groups more made for each other than the Sisters of St. Joseph and the arts community of Newton.

A consortium of Newton's arts groups - which face being kicked out of their current home in the old Carr School building in Newtonville because of rising elementary enrollments - are looking for a new home in which they can build a performing and fine arts center of a magnitude never before seen in Boston's suburbs.

The Catholic sisters, meanwhile, are selling a picturesque, tree-lined property in Newton Corner that includes an 850-seat auditorium; a historic Victorian mansion; nearly 100,000 square feet of classroom, office, and dormitory space; ample on-site parking; and a location next to the Newton History Museum. What's more, the nuns have already turned away as many as 80 commercial and institutional developers who have been swarming around the site since it went on the market more than a year ago, saying they prefer to keep the property as a community resource.

It would, the parties say, be a match made in heaven - except for the property's estimated $20 million asking price. And also that, right now, with the cost of the Newton North High School project skyrocketing to $186 million and a Proposition 2 1/2 override looming, money is not only an issue in Newton, it is the issue.

"It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Rob Gifford, a Newton resident and real estate specialist who is working with the arts groups. "It would be a tremendous asset to the city. But it's going to be tricky to make it work."

The property, located on Walnut Park off of Washington Street, was once the home of Aquinas College, a Roman Catholic junior college for women that was closed several years ago. There are six buildings on the 12-acre site, which is currently home to a Jewish day school - the Rashi School - that will soon move to Dedham, and a Catholic elementary school and a Montessori school affiliated with the nuns.

According to their real estate broker, the sisters are selling two of the buildings on the property and about half the land. One of the buildings houses the Rashi School, the convent where the sisters now live, and the auditorium that is the current performance space for one of the core groups in the arts consortium, the Newton Symphony Orchestra. The other is a historic Victorian home built by the Jackson family, who used the site as a way station to ferry runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Chip Batchelder, a broker for Waltham-based Wyman Street Advisors, said that the nuns have turned away numerous commercial suitors for the property and are intrigued by the idea of selling to the arts consortium.

"The sisters like [the representatives of the arts groups who have toured the site]. They are good people," Batchelder said. "And they represent a use that would be compatible with the schools that would remain on the property. That's a priority."

The arts consortium consists of five groups - the New Philharmonia Orchestra, the Suzuki School of Newton, the Newton Symphony Orchestra, the Newton Choral Society, and the Mayor's Office for Cultural Affairs.

The consortium hasn't settled on pursuing any particular site for a new arts center, said state Representative Kay Khan, a main organizer of the effort.

Instead, the group is still canvassing other arts groups in the city for input and support, and is using a $19,000 state arts grant to create a feasibility study for the arts center project, Khan said.

The study is being done by TDC Corp. of Boston, a consulting firm whose previous work includes the new homes of the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Peabody Essex Museum.

The group is considering a number of sites for an arts center, including Newton Centre and a planned development at the Riverside MBTA station.

Until more work is done, Khan said, the Aquinas site remains only one alternative, albeit an especially intriguing one.

Any arts center project, she said, is going to require a major fund-raising effort. Even though the mayor's office is involved, Khan said, the group is not anticipating any funding from the city.

"We won't get any money out of the city, but we do want to work with the city," she said.

Municipal finances have been a superheated topic in the city since earlier this year, when Mayor David B. Cohen announced that the cost of the Newton North High School project had reached $186 million and would probably go higher. A short time later, Cohen said he would seek a $23.9 million Proposition 2 1/2 override to plug gaps in the city's operating budget.

The dire financial news has already prompted something of a fiscal backlash. Aldermen recently delayed a proposal to spend about $2 million for a property abutting the municipal bathing beach at Crystal Lake, saying the city's finances were too uncertain.

Meanwhile, Cohen said Monday he would support a scaled-down override. He rejected a proposal by Alderwoman Amy Sangiolo and Alderman Bill Brandel for an operating override of $10 million, but said he supports a $14.9 million override proposed by Alderwoman Susan Albright and Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan.

Jeremy Solomon, Cohen's spokesman, noted the city's difficult financial position and said that the arts consortium would need a "substantial fund-raising effort" in order for any new project to be viable.

The city did have some good news for the arts groups, however. At a recent meeting of the consortium, Cohen announced that the Newton Cultural Center would remain open at the Carr School for at least one more year, giving the groups more time to find a home.

Even with the extra time, however, some arts backers, like Gifford, are urging the arts community to jump at the opportunity provided by the Aquinas site.

The consortium is eyeing potential funding sources that include wealthy benefactors and the sale of assets owned by the individual arts groups, said Gifford, who is also a cochairman of the pro-override group, Move Newton Forward. But there are also several creative funding alternatives presented by the unique nature of the site, and the Rashi School building in particular, he said.

With the city planning to embark on an ambitious plan to renovate its 15 elementary schools over the next two decades, the School Department will need temporary space where classes will be held while buildings are being upgraded.

The city's plan had been to use the Carr School, Gifford said, but that would require spending millions of dollars on renovations to bring the building up to code and to add modular classrooms, because it is too small to house the student populations of some of the city's larger elementary schools.

Instead, he said, the School Department could lease space from the arts consortium at a favorable rate in the Rashi School building, a much larger facility that is in move-in condition. In fact, members of the School Committee toured the Aquinas site last year and considered it for temporary space, but ultimately decided that it was too expensive to buy.

Gifford said he is convinced that a combination of lease funding, fund-raising, and other sources of money could make the project work.

"The trick will be to get all the puppies in the same basket."

Aquinas College

campus key

Part of the former Roman Catholic junior college for women is getting attention as a potential home for a community center for the arts.

1. School and auditorium (currently the Rashi School)

2. Large Victorian house

3. Large chateau-style mansion (currently the Walnut Park Montessori School)

4. Utility barn, shed

5. Smaller two-story house (currently houses an administrator)

6. Jackson School, a Catholic elementary school

7. Newton History Museum

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