Christian Science Church plans to develop its campus

The changes to the Christian Science plaza will involve consolidating space for current employees and pursuing real estate development options.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist, confirmed Tuesday that it plans major changes at its 14-acre headquarters site in Boston to reduce overhead costs and generate income from underutilized real estate.

"We are in the business of spiritual transformation, of healing," said Nathan Talbot, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors, which publishes this newspaper. "Our objective is quite simple – to devote our resources to that mission."

Church real estate executives briefed Boston city officials Oct. 11 on their plans, which include:

•Renovating the top five floors of the Christian Science Publishing House building, starting this fall.

•Moving substantially all of the church's 500 Boston-based employees into the Publishing House by early 2008 and vacating the 26-story Administration building and the five-story Church Colonnade building.

•Engaging in a multiyear planning process to explore new uses for vacated buildings and the possibility of adding new commercial space to the church's campus. Development options include residential, retail, and office space.

Boston officials welcomed the church's planning efforts. In a statement, Mayor Thomas Menino said, "Their current efforts to update the plaza's master plan and continue its role as a vital space for Bostonians show the church's strong commitment to our city."

Church officials stressed that the moves were motivated by a desire to be good stewards of the organization's real estate assets. In a statement, Treasurer J. Edward Odegaard said the church's finances were "stable, with substantial assets and no debt."

The church has hired the real estate development firm of Leggat McCall Properties to advise it on proposed changes and expects to hire a design team, including an urban designer, architect, and landscape architect, for the project within 90 days. The plaza was completed in 1975 and was designed by I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta Associated Architects. Both Mr. Cossutta and an official of the Pei firm have been briefed on the church's plans.

The focal point of the campus, the original Mother Church and its adjoining, domed extension, will not change and will be carefully maintained, a church statement said.

The Christian Science Church plans to retain ownership of the land on the plaza. Arrangements with the firm eventually chosen to develop the plaza will include restrictions so that activities on the site will be compatible with a religious campus, church real estate officials said.

For the multiyear project to take place, the church will need permission from the City of Boston. The church plans to seek a rezoning of its 14-acre parcel, which is currently a special zoning district called The Christian Science Institutional area.

In seeking approval from city officials, the church is likely to be questioned about how added development of its property would affect the large areas of open space on the church plaza as it is currently configured. For example, the church plaza now includes a large reflecting pool and a fountain that attracts throngs of neighborhood children in the summer.

In a statement, the church said it wanted "to enhance the space for the community and the general public in the heart of Boston" and added that "open space and greenery will continue to be a key part of the plaza." Spokesman Phillip Davis said, "The church plans to work closely with the City of Boston and consult with its neighbors in the development process."

No changes are planned to Horticultural Hall, a historic building on the edge of the church's property that faces Boston's iconic Symphony Hall. The Midtown Hotel, a long structure across Huntington Avenue from the church, is leased out and is not part of the new planning effort.

While the portion of the Publishing House that contains the Monitor's offices and the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity was renovated between 2000 and 2002, the upper five floors (5 through 9) were left unfinished because their ultimate use was not clear at the time. Extensive demolition and renovation work will be required before church employees can move into that space.

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