Charlie Vasiliades: 'Community Spirit' Key to Allston-Brighton Improvements
The following is an excerpt from a taped interview conducted by local historian Bill Marchione with long-time Allston-Brighton community activist Charlie Vasiliades.
Bill Marchione: To begin with Charlie, would you tell us a little about your family background, where you grew up, about your schooling, and job history?
Charlie Vasiliades: I was born in 1957. I'm a life-long resident of Brighton, specifically of the Oak Square neighborhood. When I was born, we lived on Brock Street. Since 1959, we've lived on Langley Road, near Oak Square. I'm first generation Greek-American. As with many immigrant families, we live in a sort of extended family arrangement, with my younger sister and brother-in-law occupying the first floor of our two family, and my parents and myself living upstairs.
I'm a product of the Boston Public Schools. I attended Boston Latin, went on to Umass/ Boston, where I received an excellent undergraduate education, and then attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design for a City Planning degree. I've basically had my only major job, for eighteen years now, with the Commonwealth as a housing specialist in the state's Housing Subsidy Program.
BM: If a newcomer or a stranger were to ask you for a brief description of Allston-Brighton, how would you respond?
CV: Well, first of all, this is a community that is, both socially and demographically, incredibly diverse, and I'm proud of that diversity. Allston-Brighton was that way even when I was growing up, with its large numbers of Irish, Italian, and Jewish families, with a sprinkling of other ethnic groups as well. But nowadays the diversity is much greater. We have African-Americans, Asians---from the Chinese to Vietnamese---and large numbers of Latin Americans. It's an exciting mix. Similarly, physically, Allston-Brighton has different types of neighborhoods, from its more dense, citified sections along Commonwealth Avenue, to its more suburban and open sections like Oak Square/ Faneuil and Aberdeen, where one still finds open landscape.
BM: How did you first become involved in community activities?
CV: In 1977, when the Oak Square School faced pressure to close, I contacted the Principal, Miss Ellen Murray, who had also been principal when I attended, and joined a group of parents, teachers, and other interested persons who were working to keep that elementary school open. And since the Historical Society was at the same time trying to get the Oak Square School designated a City of Boston Architectural Landmark, I also became involved with the Historical Society, and then with the local neighborhood civic group, the Washington Hill Civic Association. But my involvement began with the effort to save the Oak Square School.
BM: Were you satisfied with the way the effort turned out?
CV: Very satisfied. For the first three or four years we were successful in keeping the school open. The Oak Square School was one of the most highly rated elementary schools in Boston, and while the city was arguing that it was antiquated, lacking in a cafeteria, and so forth, we made the point that education doesn't rely on the physical plant so much as it does on what goes on inside the walls. We managed to hold the advocates of closure off for a few years, but with the budget crisis stemming from Proposition 2 1/2, the school ultimately closed. By that time, however, with the support of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, we had succeeded in getting the building designated a city landmark, which meant that it could not be demolished or altered externally to any great extent. Then through the collaboration of the Washington Hill Civic Association, the Historical Society, and the Community Development Corporation, and with the CDC acting as the developer, the school was purchased and converted into ten moderately priced condominiums. The Oak Square School was thus beautifully restored and also permanently protected, and housing provided in a community where a strong demand existed.
BM: What are the principal problems facing Allston-Brighton today?
CV: One problem that we don't have, certainly, is disinvestment or very many vacant properties. Our problem is just the opposite. Because of the three universities that surround us, and the pressure their students exert on our housing stock, coupled with Allston-Brighton's convenience to the downtown, and fairly low crime rate, the pressures for development and higher rents here have created a variety of very serious problems. The single most serious problem stems from a combination of absentee ownership and transciency. Absentee owners, generally, tend not to care as much about the condition of their property as resident owners, and to charge whatever rents the market will bear, with little care as to who they rent to, packing as many tenants as they can, often students, into their properties. Allston-Brighton also has a disproportionately high population of young people---young professionals in their twenties and thirties---who often see Allston-Brighton as little more than a way station on the road to a more permanent residence elsewhere. That's a problem for our community because there's frequently no investment by these individuals of interest, energy, or commitment to the neighborhood. Also, the resulting high cost of housing makes it very tough for those who grew up in Allston-Brighton to afford to rent or to buy here. And, finally, all this demand leads to extraordinary development pressures. As you know, we have a number of open space sites in Allston-Brighton that we're anxious to preserve. When you see land owners trying to squeeze three times the number of housing units onto a site that zoning regulations allow, it becomes a constant struggle to keep density within reasonable bounds.
So, again, there are four interrelated dilemmas that the community faces---absenteeism, transciency, overdevelopment, and high housing costs. It's hard to separate them out. What they represent collectively is a threat to stability. To me stability means that you have in your population---whether it be from homeowners or tenants---a commitment to enhance and protect the quality of life in a neighborhood, to care about the area as a place to live.
BM: I know you've been involved with a broad range of community organizations. With which of them have you been most closely associated?
CV: It's an alphabet soup of affiliations. Virtually from the beginning of my involvement, I've been associated with the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, serving as the group's President from 1997 to 1999. I was also a founding member of the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation, serving on its Board for more than twenty years. I'm also a board member of the Brighton-Allston Improvement Association. What I'm probably best known for, I guess, is my involvement with Oak Square-related issues. I'm President of the Friends of the Oak Square Common, and an active member of the Friends of the Faneuil Branch Library, and have also served on many past ad hoc committees dealing with Oak Square development issues. Other affiliations include the Board of Brighton Main Streets and the Vice Presidency of the newly-formed Brighton Garden and Horticultural Society.
BM: As a former President and long-term Board member of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society your commitment to historic preservation and open space conservation is well-known. What has the community accomplished in those areas and what else can we do?
CV: Well, with respect to historic preservation, I'm very proud of what we accomplished with the Oak Square School. Also, working with Brighton Main Streets and Allston Village Main Streets, we played an important role in getting two National Register of Historic Places Districts established recently in the community's principal commercial districts.
The Historical Society has also long recognized that open spaces form part of our historic landscape and has sought to protect them, and the community has certainly scored some notable successes in that area. The struggle to preserve as much of the open land as possible at the St. Sebastian's site was, I would say, 95 percent successful. When the developers first came to the community with their plans for that acreage, they were proposing eight twenty-story buildings, containing 1600 units. It was a long struggle, but we ended up with a mere ten luxury homes, plus conservation easements on the surrounding acreage. Likewise, at the Crittenden Hospital site, where the threat of development still exists, we succeeded in beating back high density development. Also through planning with the BRA about ten years ago, we down-zoned other open space sites, the so-called Urban Wilds, and substantially decreased potential density. An example is the old Cenacle property---a beautiful 17 acre parcel at the eastern end of Nonantum Hill. The Cenacle location used to be zoned for 230 or so housing units. Now, legally, if development were to occur there, the limit would be 108 units, plus the other development restrictions that come with open space zoning. So I feel that we've already accomplished quite a bit in protecting Allston-Brighton's open spaces.
BM: You're also an advocate of providing more affordable housing in Allston-Brighton, as evidenced by your long-term involvement with the CDC. Are the goals of historic preservation, open spaces conservation, and affordable housing compatible?
CV: Yes, very much so, in my opinion. Many people are under the mistaken impression that if you're for open spaces conservation, you can't be for affordable housing. Now, I'm not for taking a blade of grass from existing open spaces if it can be helped. I do believe, however, that you can work within the envelopes of existing old industrial buildings and paved over areas to provide additional housing, as we did, for example, in the case of the Oak Square School. You don't have to build on green space. One way to deal with the conservation of open spaces when a major piece of open land comes onto the market---in a case like the Cenacle Property or the Crittenden property---would be for a public entity like the CDC to purchase the property, convert the historic buildings on the site to some kind of affordable or mixed ownership housing, and then place conservation easements on the land, which would prevent future development on those sites.
BM: Would you comment a little on the recent failure of the referendum on the Community Preservation Act? I know you were involved as a supporter, as was I. Why do you think the voters rejected the CPA and did they misunderstand what was intended?
CV: Timing was almost certainly a factor in the defeat---the state of the economy made people reluctant to commit to even the small amount of increased taxes involved. Others may have supported the open space provisions but not the affordable housing piece, or vice versa. On the other hand, when parcels of open land are threatened with development people immediately say: "The Government needs to do something!" When it comes to paying, however, they say: "But not out of my pocket!" Well, there's no free lunch. If we want the government to protect these properties, we have to be willing to contribute. As matters stand, if one of these properties were to come onto the market today, forget about the government stepping in to buy the land. It's not going to happen. There just isn't any money for such purchases.
BM: Approval of the CPA would have meant the state matching every dollar that Boston's taxpayers provided, and it would have come to a very substantial amount, far more than has ever been available in the past.
CV: One of the most frustrating aspects of the problem is that without the CPA the city has only about $250,000 available for open spaces conservation for the entire city. And as you know, given the current market value of land, that's a drop-in-the-bucket here. Had the CPA passed, a fund of nearly $30 million a year would have been created for open spaces conservation, historic preservation, and affordable housing. It was a great opportunity lost, in my opinion.
BM: Charlie, you've lived in Oak Square just about all of your life, and I know your heart is in Oak Square. In fact, you're sometimes referred to as "The Mayor of Oak Square." What are some of the changes that have occurred in Oak Square over the last twenty or so years and have they been mostly positive, in your opinion?
CV: Some negative changes, but mostly positive. There's been a shift in demographics away from long-term residency, which is an unfortunate trend, as I said earlier. On the positive side, we have a much more racially and ethnically diverse population of homeowners, which is great. And physically, the neighborhood has improved tremendously. We've been successful in fighting off large-scale development proposals. Also, the commercial heart of the neighborhood has improved tremendously. A lot of people commented in the 1970s that the Square was looking ratty; that it seemed to be going down hill. We've reversed the trend. Through a lot of city investment, through the reconstruction of Washington Street, and the redesigned Oak Square Common (paid for with Browne Fund money), the Square is looking fantastic. And what makes me most proud, is that so many residents have been involved in the process. We have, for example, thirty volunteers, members of the Friends of the Oak Square Common, who see to the upkeep of the Common. Instead of residents not getting involved, a cooperative climate prevails in Oak Square. You get a sense of that when you're out working on the Common, and the merchants send pizza or sodas over because they approve of what we're doing, or when folks stop their cars to say, "Good job!" When people don't get involved in the life of the community, a city neighborhood can seem very anonymous. By getting involved you help to create an atmosphere not unlike that of a small town in Vermont, where you know the neighbors on your street, and you know your neighbors in the Square. When I go down into Oak Square to buy a paper, an errand that would normally take ten minutes, I'm often gone half hour or more because I run into two or three people I know and we end up chatting. That is to me the way a community should be! If there's one thought that I'm most anxious to get across, it's that when people get involved in their community not only do they make more friends, but they build up the strength of the community itself. That certainly has been the case in Oak Square.
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