Lesley's Art Institute of Boston Moving to Porter

After several years of planning, Lesley University received a special permit from the Cambridge Planning Board last week approving the relocation of the Art Institute of Boston from Kenmore Square in Boston to Cambridge’s Porter Square.

AIB, founded in 1912, merged with Lesley College to become part of the university in the late 1990s.

The zoning amendment was passed by the City Council this past June but required a special permit due to the scope of the construction project.

The zoning proposal includes moving the former North Prospect Church south of its parcel of land and creating a four story Arts Plaza on Mass Ave.

The church, built in 1845 and moved into its current location in 1867, was purchased by Lesley University in 2006 when the church’s congregation decided to merge with another in Medford. Since the church is currently designated as a historic landmark, its reconstruction required approval from the Cambridge Historical Commission.

The new facilities are intended to serve as art galleries, an art library, and a gathering space for artists.

Councilor Craig A. Kelley, the only councilor who voted against the zoning ordinance, said that this project is getting “active resistance from four or five people who are questioning whether the zoning is valid.”

According to Kelley, those against the move submitted an appeal to the court more than six months ago. If the appeal passes, Lesley University’s project could be terminated.

But according to Lesley University Public Affairs Director Bill Doncaster, the university has been having an ongoing community discussion to integrate Porter Square residents into the planning.

A committee of volunteer neighbors assembled by the Cambridge Community Development Department, named the Lesley/Neighborhood Working Group, has been meeting with Lesley administrators since 2006, according to Doncaster.

“Cambridge is a dense urban environment and finding a suitable facility for the college is a challenge,” Doncaster said.

For Lesley College student Jerimiah Bergstrom, the project’s budget was a significant concern.

“There’s already been instances before with Lesley being over-ambitious with their budget,” Bergstrom said, referring to other construction projects the university has had to delay, but ultimately completed.

Bergstorm, who has lived in Allston for the past four years, added that he has seen first-hand the negative effects of a university unable to fulfill its construction promises to a neighborhood—referring to Harvard’s halt on construction on the Science Complex in the neighborhood in 2009 due to financial constraints.

Bergstorm said he does not want Lesley to follow suit.

“Lesley has been in its own area for the past 100 years and the community has grown up with it,” Bergstorm said.

—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at rtesfaye@college.harvard.edu.

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