Thursday, April 26, 2012

Leaving Beacon Hill

Second in a series of posts about the April UUA Board Meeting

You can't help but get a feeling of history walking into the building -- the big long staircase that leads to the second floor, where in 1965 the UUA Board adjourned to join Martin Luther King in Selma, and William Ellery Channing peers down from every room.  Last week the UUA Board cleared the UUA Administration to sell it, plus two other buildings on Beacon Hill, and move to another location.

Despite its feeling of antiquity, 25 Beacon has been "home" only since 1925 (and then only to the Unitarians until merger in 1961).  Over the past year the Board and Administration have been looking at whether or not these properties fit our values.

First there is the issue of accessibility:  there is an elevator, but there are also ramps that are very difficult for physically challenged people to navigate.  Those of us with chemical/mold sensitivities are pretty miserable, and the offices were designed for 1920s style "command and control" not collaboration - and NOT for energy efficient usage.  The other office building, 41 Mount Vernon, does not even have good Internet access. And then there is this poignant comment from Bill Sinkford, first African American UUA President:

Perhaps the news coverage and protest around the killing of Trayvon Martin can provide a small window for understanding. It is still dangerous for a person of color to be where they are not “supposed to be”. Walking up Beacon Hill always forced me to confront the question of whether I was supposed to be there.

And as a financial steward, it is impossible for me to ignore this:  the Boston market for commercial space is depressed (though starting to come back), while there is still high demand for premium residential space like Beacon Hill. Between the cost to maintain and do significant (needed) repairs to old buildings, and the difference between what we could get for selling the building and moving to a different one that fit our values around people and our environment, we could add a significant amount of money for programming each year -- programming that goes directly to supporting our congregations.

There has been significant conversation about moving out of Boston, but the majority of the Board was persuaded by the arguments of the Administration:  the time and momentum lost (at least 3-4 years, based on the experiences of other faith traditions that moved their headquarters) would be too much in such a crucial time.  We would lose the majority of our staff, who would not move (including senior management).  Though there is no requirement to be Unitarian Universalist to work at our headquarters, most of our employees are, and having these consistent value systems helps.  The Boston area still has the largest pool to draw from.  Though it is appealing to think of us moving into a depressed urban area (like a Detroit) and helping turn it around, I don't think that is realistic.

Next post:  Why I am excited about GA


Anonymous said...

You and I should talk. You will be my UUA trustee when I become Interim Minister in Monterey this summer. I will literally chain myself to the door of that building before I will allow today's amnesiacs to sell it.

Linda Laskowski said...

Ah, John, I knew it was you. I just didn't know you were coming as Interim to Monterrey -- welcome to the district! I look forward to having another opportunity to talk.

Sally Gellert said...

I am somewhere between “chain myself to the door” and “sell it now while the residential market is high and office market is low”.
I am only gradually, reluctantly, persuaded that an alternative to staying is logical. My sense of history and tradition argues for remaining, as does my desire for preservation of historic buildings and disdain for new corporate-headquarters-style buildings.
The discussion of the labor market leaves me cold, makes me angry.
However, IFF (if and only if) the deficiencies—lack of Internet service (presumably something that Verizon, ATT, etc. cannot fix? hard to imagine), accessibility issues, mold, etc., are accurately reported (having never been there, I can only accept reports, having no objective knowledge), then there is a reasonable case for a move.
I take the 3–4 years with a grain of salt, and as for the potential of losing senior staff: tough. No organization guarantees no moves when a job is taken. We are not QUITE as connected to Boston as the Catholic Church is to the Vatican (though it might be close ).
There are a few points on which I am unbendable, however, as follows:
(1) no new building, custom built for us; that is a luxury that we simply cannot afford, and sends a much-too-exclusive message
(2) no leased space; we cannot look back at a box of receipts instead of retaining equity in our headquarters. Too many of our congregations have gotten into financial trouble by giving up their parsonage; we must not do the same at the denominations level.
(3) any money gained that is not used for a new-to-us building must be retained for future capital projects, not spent on programming that is fleeting. It is a “spend the interest, not the principal” approach that suits long-range planning.
(4) We must be accessible to public transportation and incorporate as many environmentally beneficial choices as possible: skylight, operating windows, dual-level flush toilets, etc. To do otherwise would be hypocritical, given our emphasis on Green Sanctuaries.
To me, this is a very tall order. I do not know whether it is possible to meet all, or even most, of these conditions. If not, then we stay where we are, for my money—but if we can find the right place, I can accept it.

Linda Laskowski said...

Thanks for the feedback, Sally. I understand the attachment as I was there as well. You will find most of your concerns spelled out in Board policy in my January 31 blog post,;postID=86568589683391528

Leases for large office spaces are a very different beast than residential, so the analogy for #2 doesn't exactly apply. It is more of a financing than a risk decision.

FunInTheSunNewHQ said...

San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach etc. etc. the UUA should move it's center of gravity to where many UUs live. And California is the perfect candidate because of it's great weather, high percentage of UUs compared to other states, and it's progressive attitude that reflect that of Unitarians. Moving the HQ to California would be a Strategic move, which would also generate much needed publicity/attention to the movement. Infuse new energy by moving to The Golden State. After all, it's the 2nd state with the highest number of congregations and adherents right behind MA

Arthur Ungar said...

Sorry that I didn't see this earlier.

I think that we should sell the building and not leave Boston. Although history is nice, it's only since 1927. The inefficiency and inaccessibility are overwhelming.

I was in 25 many times when I represented PCD as UUA Trustee. It is beautiful for the public, but dismal for the staff.

John will need a really long chain from Monterey to Boston.

Art Ungar