(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
The city has begun accepting offers for a pair of coveted North End buildings that could resolve space issues for two popular neighborhood schools, and residents are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the bidding process.
Last week, Boston’s Property and Construction Management Department released a long-awaited request for proposals on adjacent buildings at 150 North St. and 130-140 Richmond St. The building on North Street is partly empty but contains a few city offices, which will relocate in the coming months. The Richmond Street building housed the city’s printing plant for 78 years but was shuttered in July 2010 to cut costs.
Speaking shortly before the RFP was released, Chief of Public Property Michael J. Galvin explained that it had been delayed while the city cleared up an issue on the title for the property. He said the document was carefully examined by the city’s lawyers and elected officials and also circulated through multiple city departments to ensure that every possible issue was addressed.
One potential developer, the North Bennet Street School has worked since early 2011 to build community support for its ambition of moving into the buildings to expand its campus, and the RFP is written in terms that could be advantageous to the trade school.
The document states that the city will accept either a cash offer greater than the $11.3 million appraised value of the properties or an offer that includes a property in the North End with a minimum of 24,000 square feet appropriate for use as an elementary school, as well as parking and accessibility.
Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, the school’s president, said last year that the trade school’s property contained about 50,000 square feet, and already some of its workshops have been converted into classroom space for the Eliot School through an arrangement between the trade school and the city school system last summer.
The RFP also says preference will be given to proposals that include “a public purpose for the beneficial interest of the residents of Boston” and that tax-exempt organizations may include a payment in lieu of taxes in their proposal, terms that could be beneficial to the non-profit trade school.
Many neighborhood residents support North Bennet’s expansion plan because it has suggested that its current facility could be used for expansion of the popular but overcrowded John Eliot K-8 School, which sits just around the corner.
A group of parents whose children attend the Eliot School want to ensure that any plan for the buildings will one way or another include a means to expand. They complain of overcrowded classrooms, a library and other facilities sacrificed to make space for classrooms, and several classes of middle-school students sharing a single toilet.
In an email to a reporter, a BPS spokesman said Superintendent Carol R. Johnson was working closely with the city to resolve space issues at the school but that some claims about overcrowding were exaggerated. He said it was true that there was only one toilet on the school’s third floor, where the middle school classrooms are, but that students had access to other toilets.
“The principal at the school runs a tight ship and uses every inch of her building very efficiently,” Boston school spokesman Matthew F. Wilder wrote. “With that said, we know there is a need to create a long-term solution that allows us to serve more of the families who want to choose the Eliot. We are working closely with the city to map out all possible options.”
A co-chair of the school’s family council said this week that the group is gathering facts and preparing to make a recommendation to the city regarding expansion of the school. Israel Ruiz, whose twin daughters are in the school’s K-1 program, said not all parents agree on which solution is best, but they are united in the belief that the sale of these buildings must include a resolution for the school.
“We’re seeing this as a way to conduct a conversation and get to a resolution … that resolves the short- and long-term needs of the Eliot,” Ruiz said. “We are very encouraged and very energized, and I think the entire council is very much looking forward to engaging in the discussion so that we can advance in the best possible way, recognizing and sympathizing with all the needs that the city needs to cover.”
Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, an independent watchdog agency, said in a phone interview Thursday that he was sympathetic to parents’ concerns and had encouraged them to reach out to city officials, but he had to focus on the bottom line.
In December 2010 Cahill sent a letter to Mayor Thomas M. Menino expressing concern that the city appeared to be preparing to sell the properties to the North Bennet Street School without a public bidding process. But he stressed this week that he was comfortable with the trade school purchasing the buildings so long as it paid their true value, other potential developers had a fair shot, and the process was transparent.
“What we are hoping is that the processes are followed, that the taxpayers are well compensated, and I want to make sure that the full value of the buildings is recognized,” Cahill said.
Galvin said that he, too, was concerned about getting the city the greatest value for the property. “The big thing for me is if the building was worth $50 million to make sure I get north of $50,” he said.
Cahill said the city had originally planned to accept only a cash-and-buildings arrangement — a situation that would have been advantageous to the trade school, given the scarcity of large buildings available in the North End. But when asked for his input, he proposed leaving the door open to a cash-only deal. “I asked that they add that language — they did without a hassle,” Cahill said.
Both Galvin and Cahill said the commission had worked closely and cooperatively with the property department in writing the RFP, and Cahill said he was comfortable with the process and the final the document. “I feel it’s a very strong RFP,” Cahill said. “I think it’s open to a lot of different possibilities for the buildings. … The RFP puts everybody on an even playing field.”
Cahill has been told that more than 20 potential developers had requested copies of the RFP. Galvin said proposals would be reviewed by an independent committee that would make a recommendation to his office, but he couldn’t say whether there would be a process for community input.
Gómez-Ibáñez, the trade school’s president, said that in his view, the document’s wording was not so much advantageous to the North Bennet Street School as it was welcoming to proposals that would help expand the Eliot School.
He said the trade school has hired an appraiser to determine the current value of the four internally connected buildings it owns on North Bennet and Tileston streets and has begun assembling a proposal, but he was unsure whether it could meet the minimum dollar amount.
“The RFP is written in such a way that it’s open to the Eliot School using our building, and my job is to see if we can swing it, to be competitive,” he said. “We’re still going to have to come up with money, and that’s always a challenge for a nonprofit.”
The city will accept proposals until 10 a.m. on Feb. 16.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)