Jamaica Plain group asks Orthodox archbishop to save land overlooking Jamaica Pond

By Joseph Leahy, Globe Correspondent

A group of Jamaica Plain residents is reaching out to the Archbishop of Constantinople, the official head of the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Istanbul, in an effort to save a wooded hill overlooking Jamaica Pond from development.

The Community Caring Institute (CCI) has instigated a letter-writing campaign beseeching Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known for his environmentalism, to prevent Brookline-based Hellenic College from selling a 12.5-acre plot of deciduous woods on its campus to developers.

The college, which has listed the property for $18 million, is seeking to close a significant budget gap.

“Dear Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople,” reads the letter. “Please stand with us in preserving and conserving one of the most pristine hillside woodlands left in the city of Boston … We, like you, believe that man has become reckless in its care of the earth, consumed by greed. We, like you, believe that social justice is closely linked with our treatment of the ecosystem, and those with money and power often gain more at the cost of the poor.”

Hellenic College’s Public Relations Director John Papson said that though the College does “fall under the auspices” of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the decision to sell the land along Prince Street rests with the college’s trustees.
“As to whether [contacting the Archbishop] would have an effect,” he said, “It might; it might not.”
Archbishop Bartholomew, often referred to as “Green Pope,” is a staunch conservationist who has received numerous international awards for his efforts as an environmental activist. He has been quoted as saying, “If human beings were to treat one another’s personal property the way they treat the natural environment, we would view that behavior as anti-social and illegal.”

He also once wrote: “When will we understand that a crime against nature is a crime against ourselves and sin against God?”

CCI’s letter, drafted by institute coordinator Alison Yoos, explains to the Archbishop the environmental costs of a sale, including the potential loss of trees, habitat for animals, and watershed pollution. The J-shaped plot, cupping the southern portion of the school’s 40-acre campus, remains largely as it was before the area was settled.

Yoos, 24, said her greatest fear is that the land will be overrun by condominiums and hopes a positive response from Istanbul will ensure that never happens.

“[The archbishope’s] publicly stated support is something we can take to the college and communicate to the leaders that the head of their church supports the preservation of the land,” said Yoos, a graduate student of public health at Northeastern University.

Yoos said the letter to the patriarch will be sent to other local conservation groups, and translated into Turkish for distribution to Turkish media.

Gerry Wright, CCI director and a community organizer in Jamaica Plain for 52 years, points out this is not the first time property on Prince Street overlooking the pond has been threatened.

“This is the fourth and final time for protecting the hill,” he said.

In 1993, the college scaled back its plans to build dorms on campus when a community campaign drew attention to how the new buildings would rise above the tree line and be visible from the pond.

In 1990 and 1998 community campaigns also thwarted projects proposed by developers to build on the Prince Street property before the college owned it. Wright said he helped convince Hellenic College in 2005 to purchase the land, with the expectation it would be protected from future development.

In early January, however, the 12.5-acre plot appeared on a real estate listing and today the property at 156-222 Prince Street is listed on the Otis & Ahearn Real Estate website with the words, “one time opportunity for the right owner or developer. This 12.5 acre wooded setting overlooking Jamaica Pond with skyline views of Boston is truly a rare offering.”

Wright said he believes the final solution for protecting the hill will be for state, city and conservation groups to jointly purchase the property and set up a land trust. He said the Board of Directors for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy voted last Wednesday to make protecting the land its top priority.

“We want to put pressure on the church to show that we will make it impossible for any developer to purchase that land,” said Wright.

Papson said the Archbishop speaks fluent English and the CCI’s letter has a good possibility of reaching him.

“There are certainly ways to communicate with him. It’s no secret,” said Papson.

A representative for Archbishop Bartholomew in Istanbul was unavailable for comment.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.