Family of Peter Valentine will sell house of artist to be turned into affordable homes by Just A Start
The colorful Cambridge home of late artist Peter Valentine, who transformed the property into a public art piece called Cosmic Moose & Grizzly Bearsville, will be transformed again into at least a dozen affordable homes, likely for rent, the nonprofit developer Just A Start said.
Though there was a movement to preserve the house and its equally elaborately decorated fence and turn the property into a community arts center, owners Adrienne Bemak and husband Rob Okun accepted a written offer to sell the property to Just A Start, organization executive director Carl Nagy-Koechlin said Friday. Bemak, of Amherst, is the sister of Valentine, who died Aug. 9 at 80.
Just A Start began talks with Bemak and Okun about a month ago, Nagy-Koechlin said. The deal moved quickly because “we were so well aligned in terms of what they wanted to see at the property.”
The building and surrounding land at 37 Brookline St., near Central Square in Cambridgeport, is assessed at $1.8 million, according to a city database. Nagy-Koechlin said it was “too early” to disclose the sale price, but shared that Valentine’s family “sold it for less than the appraised value,” giving Just A Start a discount because of the family’s enthusiasm for creating affordable housing on the property.
Details of a sale will be set in the next 30 days, Nagy-Koechlin said. After a three-month due diligence period, Just A Start plans to assess the site and pursue financing. Nagy-Koechlin hopes for an acquisition of the property by early summer.
Just A Start hope the city will help with financing, Nagy-Koechlin said, followed by the state.
“We wouldn’t have moved forward if we didn’t have the sense that the city broadly supported us,” Nagy-Koechlin said, acknowledging city councillor Marc McGovern for suggesting the possibility of affordable housing on the property to Just A Start. The organization has also found support in talks with City Manager Yi-An Huang, Nagy-Koechlin said.
The building will most likely be demolished and rebuilt, but before that comes work concerning zoning and permitting. It will likely be “a couple of years before we’re cutting any ribbons,” Nagy-Koechlin said.
A home’s journey
Just A Start plans to build approximately 12 to 15 affordable homes. Though not opposed to homeownership options, Nagy-Koechlin said, the developer leans toward building the rental housing that more readily wins public funding.
The existing house, built in 1907, sits on 6,582 square feet and includes 3,463 feet of living area – identified as including two bedrooms, three kitchens and 1.5 bathrooms. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, seeking to finish the huge Cambridgeport project now known as University Park and under attack from a tenants’ movement in the 1980s, reportedly gave the run-down rent-controlled three-decker where Valentine was living alone to the artist, moving it from a tiny street off Massachusetts Avenue to its current location at Brookline and Franklin streets partly in return for being allowed to remove it from rent control. A deed filed in 1991 at the Middlesex Registry of Deeds says Valentine, who was believed to be living on paltry disability benefits, paid $100,000 to MIT for the property.
In its previous form, it would have been home to eight people, according to one critic of the deal. But Valentine lived in Cosmic Moose & Grizzly Bearsville alone,. a colorful figure willing to teach his skills in “electromagnetic martial arts.”
The sale comes after monthslong efforts to explore turning the building into an arts center and artist residency housing, including the passing of a proposal in January to explore a city purchase and the efforts of a Valentine Art House Advisory Board to work with local cultural workers to make it happen.
In a letter Thursday, Cathie Zusy, a leader of the arts-center effort, said she was grateful to all who supported seeing the property “become something that provided community benefit – either as an art center and/or affordable housing.”
“I hope it can be both,” Zusy said, “and that the fence will be conserved and preserved so that it will continue to inspire joy and remind us of dear Peter.”
Nagy-Koechlin did not have many details about preservation efforts but said that Just A Start would work with the city and arts community to “have the best possible result of the preservation of the fence and explore other ways to incorporate the legacy of Peter into the project.”
It’s unclear whether that would be “on the site itself or elsewhere,” Nagy-Koechlin said. “We really need partners around what is the best stewardship strategy for the fence and other elements of the property.”
This post was updated March 11, 2023, to add information about a 1991 deed showing a $100,000 payment for the 37 Brookline St. property.
Fence or not this seems like a good outcome
nice move all around.
I am relieved that the property will be turned into an affordable housing by Just A Start instead of being turned into luxury condos. I thank Peter’s family for being so civic minded.
However, the history of Peter’s property mentioned in this article is inconsistent with the deed, Book/Page 21356/529 of Southern Middlesex, dated 8/15/1991 which shows that for $100,000.00, Massachusetts Institute of Technology granted to Peter Valentine with QUITCLAIM covenant the land and building at the corner of Brookline and Franklin Street.
And the article didn’t mention the fact that on 2/4/2013, the Board of Assessors of Cambridge and Mr. Valentine entered into a tax deferral and recovery agreement to defer taxes on 37 Brookline Street beginning in fiscal year 2013. This seemed to indicate that property tax had been deferred for 10 years.
According to the article, the lot size is 6,582 sq. ft. and the living space is 3,463 sq. ft, which means living space/lot size ratio is 0.53. The Cambridge Property Database lists gross floor space to be 4,680 sq ft which means GFA/Lot is 0.71.
The building is listed as a 3-family dwelling unit. So, the average living space is 1154 sq. ft./unit. Just A Start plans to build approximately 12 to 15 affordable units. Even at the lowest 12 units, that would mean 13,852 sq. ft. of living space at the current rate or whopping living space/lot of 2.1!
This can only be achieved at the expense of green space and/or height.
In the spirit of preserving and memorializing Mr. Valentine’s dreams, I certainly hope Just A Start will work with the community to scale down their project to a more modest homeownership project that will fit into the fabric of the neighborhood with ample green space and other amenities.
thank you YCK- for looking into the practicalities of the deal. everyone would dearly love to have a win-win honoring Peter while building affordable housing. But Idealism is not reality. It will be interesting to see how this moves forward. Even building materials would be helpful in emulating the feel of the original building. clapboards and traditional windows, for example, instead of cement board and big fake glass bay windows. And I hope it is geared to homeownership.
The history of the property was discussed at length Tuesday in a post by Sue Reinert at https://bit.ly/3yis0FD.
My apologies to Ms. Ogden, Ms. Reinhert and Cambridge Day for missing the link in “University Park and under attack from a tenants’ movement in the 1980s, reportedly gave the run-down rent-controlled three-decker”. I hope the current owner, the City and Just A Start work together to sort out and correct the checkered past of this house.
How can the family of Peter Valentine agree to sell the house of the artist to be turned into affordable homes by Just A Start when Policy Order POR 2023 #11 is still awaiting report from the City Manager (AR 23-3: Report on determining the feasibility of purchasing the property located at 37 Brookline Street, former home of Peter Valentine, with the intent of utilizing this as a community arts space. Councillor Simmons, Councillor Zondervan, Councillor McGovern, Councillor Azeem (O-4) from 1/23/2023) as of last regular City Council meeting on 3/6/2023? And the next regular City Council meeting is on 3/20!
Were the City, City Manager, the owners and Just A Start working together collaboratively “with the intent of utilizing this as a community arts space, to engage with the family of Peter Valentine and with members of the Cambridgeport community on this endeavor, and to report back to the City Council on this matter in a timely manner”?
Is turning this house into a 12–15-unit affordable housing the only option or the best option for “preserving and promoting the local arts community, the contributions of artists like Peter Valentine, and the legacy of Mr. Valentine himself”?
Great news. And thanks to YCK for the helpful research. Living down the block, my main concern is that 12-15 units might require killing the several large trees on the lot. Of course, it may turn out that those trees have not been maintained and are in bad shape. And it’s an area that’s been prone to increased flooding — getting rid of the of the trees and open areas of the lot will not help. Flooding will continue to worsen as the water table rises.
This is a great outcome. We need to build more affordable housing and that will mean density.
It would definitely be great if the tree’s are preserved though. And it would be nice to have some of the visuals are incorporated in the new building.
Just A Start may not be the best community partner for this project, especially for anyone who cares about achieving the goals expressed by those in the community who knew Peter best and have been most energetic about doing the most positive thing possible at this property. Peter’s family should investigate better alternatives before they settle on the first offer that walks through the door. The head of JAS is already signaling a lack of interest in preserving any of the decorative fence in situ (or anything else, probably.) Good idea? JAS have not always been good stewards of their properties (see Historical Commission records and other evidence) and have not treated tenants well in at least some of their buildings such as the Close Building and Squirrel Brand. (Maintenance? Terrible. Buzzers? Leaks? Ask the tenants!) Nagy-Koechlin was very explicit at a recent discussion of proposed amendments to the AHO: The main reason to do this is to block any “one individual” from possibly slowing down a project they don’t like. Okay, what if there are valid reasons? No matter. We are right and you – whoever you are – are wrong, by definition, because whatever we do is automatically unassailable. This is not someone who seems to have much regard for the community as a whole or for any robust democratic governance. 402 Rindge Ave was permitted under 40B as affordable housing, yet 60% of the building will be commercial (although day care will now be a suitable portion of that.) If you want to know what to expect from JAS, take a look at recent boxes they’ve been putting up in Area IV. Is thid what we want? Cambridge deserve something created with a little more imagination here than that. Something that will honor Peter’s legacy and achieve other important goals identified by the community. Affordable living space for artists would be what would likely make Peter and his family – and the community and neighbors most involved – happiest, it seems to me. Should we settle for any less? (I would be interested to hear what Patrick Barrett and Cathy Zusy, of CNA, think… It ain’t over ’til it’s over.)