Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The colorful house of artist Peter Valentine is seen behind his equally colorful fence Monday near Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

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. 

The sale can put several new affordable homes on Brookline Street near Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

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. 

Arts preservation

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.