Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What price tradition?

Sixth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

My first meeting in the chapel of 25 Beacon had me in awe -- the history of the conversations that had taken place in that room, the "greats" peering down at us from the walls. Any references to leaving these hallowed spaces seemed to plop loudly on the table in front of us, and go no where.

Until now. It is clear that remaining on Beacon Hill makes no financial or mission-related sense. Office staff is spread across 3 buildings that were not designed for collaborative work. One of them does not have good Internet access because of the prohibitive cost of high speed lines. Many of us experience allergies to whatever is lurking in them. Needed renovations would cost between $6 and $10 million, and operating costs of the energy inefficient buildings are high. Selling the buildings for a conversion to residential property and moving to more collaborative and energy efficient space would fetch a premium, allowing us to add millions to our endowment, and save around a half million a year in operating costs - not to mention reducing our carbon footprint.

Yes, I liked the idea of a headquarters right next to the historic Capitol building, the smell of the old wood, and my daily walks down to the Starbucks on the corner of Beacon and St. Charles. I appreciate the "heritage, traditions, and ideals of Unitarian Universalism" that were forged right there in those rooms. Yet I feel a greater responsibility to look forward, and my priority for mission-driven programs is higher than for museums. A straw vote by the board says I am not alone.

So the next question is where? It is seductive to think about us putting our values into action by moving into a blighted area of Detroit, for example, or some place outside of our New England roots. I do not think that is realistic. Headquarters moves take years of productivity loss (per consultants who have worked directly with churches that have done so), and also years to recoup the financial cost. I personally do not believe that we have that kind of time, nor do I believe that moving out of the Boston area would solve the classic "us vs them" issues that the headquarters of any organization has.

There is also the question of what our headquarters will be in 5, 10, or 50 years. About a third of our UUA staff is located outside of Boston, some field staff, and some just remotely located. What does that imply for space needs in the future?

Last year the Board answered the question "what would I need to see to approve a major real estate transaction?" with a policy that incorporated our values around such a transaction. I have added it in its entirety below, as it is the outline of what the current real estate activity.

2.8.12 [The President shall not] Acquire, encumber, make significant renovations to, or dispose of real property, or lease significant amounts of space, without prior Board approval, except that the President may accept and promptly dispose of real property donated to the Association. Before requesting Board approval for any such action, the President shall not fail to provide to the Board a detailed proposal, including an assessment that compares proposed and current facilities, and a plan for communicating the rationale for property decisions to congregations. In preparing such an assessment, the President shall not fail to:
  1. Explain how facilities support the Association’s Shared Vision, including the benefits and impacts of facilities on stakeholders, and including but not limited to historically marginalized voices.
  2. Evaluate facilities needs within a long term strategic plan (at least 10-15 years).
  3. Analyze the financial impact of facilities, including any savings or costs associated with changes.
  4. Assess potential liabilities, including environmental remediation costs.
  5. Ensure that facilities meet defined standards of accessibility, ease of logistics, and welcome.
  6. Consider the symbolic and historic value of facilities in balance with future needs.
  7. Assess the environmental impact of facilities.


AJU said...

I too have spent a lot of time at 25 Beacon and Picket/Elliot. I agree with your assessment. Although we love having a place next door to the State House, where we can hang flags, it is more important to have a modern, efficient space for the staff to work.

Art Ungar
former UUA Trustee from the PCD

Patrick Murfin said...

Yet as I understand it, the Board rebuked, rather strongly, the President for attempting to make such a sale and move possible taking advantage of opportunities that may arise with a short window of opportunity. More over bitterness between the board and the President seem to make it highly unlikely that the Board will approve anything he proposes.

Linda Laskowski said...

Patrick, I saw it quite differently. The Board is not opposed to a move, but rather wants context for it, the terms of which were given to the President a year ago. I think we are prepared to make a decisions about real estate, but only with the kind of analysis described in the policy.