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Neighbors fight plans to build condos on historic Black property in Roxbury

New Developments News Roxbury
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The developer is looking to build condos when filmmaker Henry Hampton made civil rights documentaries. Bailey Merlin

Michael Winston is proposing “planned serendipity,” but his plan doesn’t sit well with the neighbors in Roxbury’s historic Highland Park neighborhood.

Now the real estate entrepreneur is battling residents as he seeks to gain approval to build eight “co-housing-inspired” condominium units on a site adjacent to his home, which previously belonged to groundbreaking filmmaker Henry Hampton.

The seven-bed, five-bath home, which measures 10,744 square feet, was built in 1794. Designed by Richard Bond, the early American architect behind such properties as First Parish Church in Cambridge and Concord Town House, the property is visible in the background of artist J.W.A. Scott’s painting “View of Roxbury,” part of the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection. The property is pending landmark status by the Boston Landmark Commission.

By the latter half of the 20th century, the property earned fame as Hampton’s home and studio, where he produced some of his 65 civil rights documentary films as part of his Blackside production studio. His most famous project, the revolutionary 14-hour documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” chronicled civil rights in the United States. Though Hampton died in 1998, members of the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition have gathered more than 1,400 signatures on a change.org petition to prevent construction on a section of the property occupied by garages.

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The studio as viewed when the home was on the market in 2017. It was listed for $2,995,000. —Boston Virtual Imaging/Globe file

In 2017, Winston’s father purchased the property for $2.2 million, according to city records. Now Michael Winston lives in the home with his family, as well as several other tenants. But it’s the proposed condominium units he wants to build on the property that some members of the local community see as the further destruction of a historically Black neighborhood.

“I think our fundamental issue with his plan is that Henry Hampton was a seminal civil rights filmmaker who was responsible for “Eyes on the Prize,” so the garages we interpret as his tenure on the property,” said Rodney Singleton, an engineer and nearly 60-year resident of the neighborhood. “Yes, he lived in the main house, but the garages were instrumental, a piece of history that needs to be preserved along with the house. Knocking down the garages is really not honoring the more recent black history.”

Winston, however, said his plans to build co-housing-inspired condos will foster a sense of community, not destroy it.

“The amount of open space we are keeping on the property is going to allow for organic connections that create a strong community versus traditional town house development that has all private yards. That’s where the intention behind what we’re doing on this property is,” said Winston. “At the root of it is community. We wouldn’t be living and sharing our kitchen with people we met on the Internet if we didn’t believe in those kinds of strong connections to create a better life.”

In a Dec. 1 Zoning Board meeting, Winston asked for a deferral until March 9. In the meantime, several ideas have emerged on how to celebrate Hampton at the property, ranging from designating a unit for an artist-in-residence to creating a section at the library in his honor.

There are “so many creative things you could do besides demolition,” said Holly Shepherd of the neighborhood coalition. “You could enrich the property for what it is rather than trying to get the most money out of it as possible.”

Still, members of the coalition are hoping Winston will reconsider his plan to build on the site. A vote back in august saw neighborhood residents nearly split in their opinions, with 27 voting in favor, 33 voting against, and four abstaining.

“The thought that some young developer would choose to purchase, at great cost, a Black landmark in Roxbury, that has its own rich history already, and then insistently for years now, come back with plan after plan after plan for luxury town houses, and to decide himself ostensibly, with much conversation with all of us, what is going to be the nature of Hampton’s commemoration — I would suggest it’s not for him to decide. It’s not for me to decide,” resident Kate Phelps said. “I’ve come to understand that since I’m lucky enough to live here, I have an obligation to honor the place’s history.”

While some residents are opposed to the demolition of the garages, some neighbors are in favor of it. Jon Ellertson, coalition secretary, told Boston.com via e-mail that he supports Winston’s project if itis done in a way that recognizes the historic value.

“I, for one, do not oppose the demolition of the garages as long as the developers work with us to create a meaningful program to honor Henry and to mentor youth interested in documentary filmmaking, civil rights work, etc.  A few of us also are working on ideas to make one of the town houses ‘affordable’.”

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