Tufts halted the sale of a historic piece of property at 21 Touro Ave in Medford this week, after the city’s residents expressed concerns over potential consequences at a Jan. 26 meeting of the Medford Zoning Board of Appeals (MZBA).
Built in 1840, the property is locally known as the “Gates House,” named for its first owner, Gardiner Gates, a businessman, according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
According to Tufts Real Estate Director Robert Chihade, Walnut Hill Properties, Tufts’ real estate company, had made a tentative agreement to sell the property to contractor Carl Crupi with the caveat that no damage be done to the Gates House, and that efforts to preserve and refurbish it, which had been undertaken by Walnut Hill since it purchased the property in 1980, be continued after the sale. Crupi planned to divide the property into three lots, with the intention to build a new house on each side of the Gates House without damaging the historical property, Chihade, who also serves as Walnut Hill’s general manager, said.
He explained that after discussing the sale at length over the course of four meetings, the Medford Historic District Commission had approved the transaction based on the provision that the Gates House would be preserved.
Despite this agreement, Chihade noted that the sale was terminated this past week due to public opposition expressed at the MZBA meeting.
“It was pretty evident that people were opposed, so we asked [Crupi] to withdraw the application to the zoning court, which [the contractor has] done,” Chihade said.
Chihade said Walnut Hill had made the agreement with the intention of listening to community input.
“The way we sculpted the deal was so that residents had a voice, and they did,” he said. “We explicitly sought feedback from the community.”
Residents’ concern over the aesthetic impact of Crupi’s building plan fueled much of the opposition, according to Medford resident Tim Powers, who testified at the MZBA meeting.
“If you build these properties on this land, you’re detracting from the whole historic aura of the [Gates] House,” he said to the Medford Transcript.
According to Chihade, Walnut Hill owns 80 properties in the area, most of them residences for faculty and graduate students, along with a few community amenities like the Danish Pastry House. Chihade said that Walnut Hill had been trying to sell this piece of real estate because it no longer made economic sense for the university to continue to hold on to the property.
“It’s a big house that’s far from campus, not sought after by Tufts affiliates and it runs expenses. So it seemed time to liquidate assets that are not desirable to our audience and expensive to maintain,” he said. “There’s a tendency to characterize this as a disinterest in preserving historic properties. But we absolutely have interest in this.”
Chihade believes that if the sale were to have taken place, it would not only have benefitted Walnut Hill and Crupi, but also the Medford community as a whole.
“The Gates property would be worth more if two new houses were built on it, because money would be invested from the new homes,” he said. “That would provide additional tax revenue and income to Walnut Hill, which would be invested in our many properties throughout the community.”
According to Justin Hollander, an associate professor of urban and environmental planning, it is fairly common for community efforts to halt property sales.
“It’s a staple of the zoning system in Massachusetts, which provides for a simple and modest standard for development,” he said. “If you want to do more, you have to go to town, and these things are publicized, and community members get invited to the meetings. The idea is that if the community supports it, then they’re happy to allow variance, and if they are concerned, it doesn’t go through usually.”
Hollander, who also serves as co-chair of the Campus Planning and Development Committee for the School of Arts and Sciences, a faculty group that offers guidance and feedback to administration about community development, said building projects like these have varying results for different parties.
“The people of South Medford know what it looks like right now, and they like it…you can see in Cambridge and Somerville how older neighborhoods were transformed, and they’re aware,” he said.
But in the case of Crupi’s building plan, Hollander said he does not see many downsides to the sale.
“I would think that because the historic building is being preserved and new, probably luxury housing is being brought to the area, it’s probably going to increase property value,” he said.
Chihade echoed Hollander’s sentiments, noting the benefits of the sale for Medford residents.
“It was a win-win across the board as long as the community was okay with it, which they weren’t,” Chihade said.