University Hall in Porter Square will get a stronger sense of identity as school property in a Lesley Campus Plan.(Photo: Marc Levy)

Lesley University plans to remake its three Cambridge campuses over the next five years, selling property and renovating buildings with a team of architects, designers and real estate professionals after meeting with community groups.

Some of the Lesley Campus Plan’s bigger expected projects will restore and update the former Episcopal Divinity School campus that Lesley bought in 2018, including transforming St. John’s Chapel into a performance space with a black box theater, and give the flagship University Hall in Porter Square a stronger sense of identity as a university property.

“There needs to be connective kinds of experiences that let you know that you’re at Lesley. How do we start to align these campuses that have very different histories and very different neighborhoods to give them a common connection but at the same time honor those histories and those neighborhoods?” said Lesley president Janet L. Steinmayer in a Tuesday call. “When you walk into University Hall, you need to feel like you’ve arrived at Lesley. The only thing there that tells you you’re at Lesley is the staircase.”

Art, wayfinding, outdoor seating and landscaping can help provide those connections, but much of the work will also be less visible to the public, from updating the plumbing in aging dorms to ensuring classrooms are state of the art.

The work is expected to start next summer, with improvements beginning to be obvious in around two and a half years. Steinmayer believes the plan will cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

Lesley’s South Campus, built around a quad, is near Harvard Square off Brattle Street. (Photo: Lesley University)

To 66 buildings from one

Some funding will come from the sale of Lesley property that leaders see as either underutilized – including some that is vacant – or not well-suited to its missions around teacher education, counseling and psychology and the creative and visual arts. Lesley, which began in a single home in 1909, has grown to teach 6,000 students annually out of 66 buildings for a total of some 800,000 square feet.

What grew from around Edith Lesley’s home at 29 Everett St. in the Baldwin neighborhood is known as the Doble Campus; the Porter Campus is home to the College of Art and Design; and the South Campus near Harvard Square was using space at the divinity school even before the EDS opted for a move to New York. Lesley got an additional 4.4 acres by buying it. The need to incorporate that space kicked off a review, and in May the board of trustees, faculty and staff saw the resulting beginnings of a plan at a town hall meeting.

Lesley plans to sell several of the small Victorian houses it owns in the Baldwin neighborhood, primarily on Mellen Street and alongside similar Harvard properties – with Harvard being a possible buyer, said Ruth Ryals, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association.

Beautiful but inefficient

Cushman Wakefield will be broker on the properties, which include some restrictions as historical homes – one was built in 1862 as the home of a Cambridge mayor of the era, Charles Hicks Saunders, a college spokesperson noted. While charming on the outside, they are chopped up into humdrum offices inside, yet are still inefficient to operate. Boston’s Emerson College made the same calculation decades ago in divesting itself of Beacon Street brownstones that were returned to private housing stock.

“They’re beautiful homes. But the amount of space that we can use in them compared with the amount that we have to maintain on the exterior is a very low ratio. In a nutshell, they’re not suited to to being used as offices or instructional space, and we’re much better off returning them to their use,” Steinmayer said. “Hopefully there are families that will really profit from having them. I don’t anticipate ever wanting to have those as part of Lesley.”

Also for sale will be the 815 Somerville Ave. office building, which blends imperceptibly into the neighboring Porter Square Galleria mall. As school property, the prime real estate has been off city tax rolls since 1997; Lesley renovated it around 2009.

South Campus as centerpiece

The buildings on the South Campus Quad are Reed and Burnham halls, which will be renovated. (Photo: Lesley University)

Some of the most dramatic changes will be seen on the South Campus, though, which Steinmayer expects to become a “centerpiece of the Lesley experience. The way that you enter that campus will be quite beautiful, and hopefully be eye-catching as you go by on Brattle Street, really making you want to come onto that campus and be part of that community,” she said. The admissions office will be there and dorms for first-year students, and it will hold the theater space that will finally provide a home for Lesley dance troupes, theater needs and performances as part of the Expressive Therapies program.

Suzanne Preston Blier, of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, said she preferred to see and discuss the South Campus plans in depth before commenting. A meeting date hasn’t been set.

The Porter Square Neighbors Association will host Lesley officials for a look at the campus plan at its 7 p.m. Dec. 2 meeting, Ryals said, though she already knows what she’d like to see from it: More meeting space for when the pandemic ends and more greenery, including a possible remake of the T stop plaza around the art of David Phillips known as the “Porter Square Megaliths.”

Ryals was optimistic. “In the dealings that I’ve had with Lesley, they’ve been a partner in everything from cleanups to planning little movie nights in the courtyard in front of the art school,” she said.

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