Demolish the VFW?

By Sarah Andrews/ Chronicle Staff

Thursday, February 16, 2006 - Updated: 07:27 AM EST

A new idea is gaining steam for what to do with the VFW on Huron Avenue: Tear it down.

City officials want to construct a three-story building to house the West Cambridge Youth Center, a preschool and the Mount Auburn Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

The favored 28,000-square-foot proposal also includes space for a community art center, which may be able to accommodate the dance groups who were pushed out of the space in December, said city officials.

It would be cheaper to start from scratch than to renovate the aging, 40-year-old building, according to architects from Cambridge Seven Associates.

"Right now, the city favors building a new building," said Deputy City Manager Rich Rossi, who was designated point person for the project by City Manager Bob Healy.

Controversy exploded last year when the city purchased the building from the VFW for $2.9 million for the sole purpose of building the West Cambridge Youth Center which now operates out of Corcoran Park.

The purchase pushed out a tango and contra dance group which had used the VFW for weekly events for three decades. The groups have since relocated to a facility in Medford, but say itıs too small for the 300-plus dancers they attract and have mounted a campaign to return to Cambridge.

The dancers have had the support of several city councilors, but Healy has dismissed their pleas in the past, saying the cityıs focus was on the youth center and that accommodating the dancers could cost up to $1.5 million more.

But the idea behind the community art center, which has gained speed, is that it can be used flexibly to accommodate group activities for a variety of residents, dancers hopefully included.

While going forward with a new facility will require neighborsı approval, Rossi said his next step is to develop a cost analysis for the option.

Principal Architect Gary Johnson also said a new building would take about two years to design and complete. The design process would not begin in-depth until city officials from the Human Services Department develop programming for the Youth Center (see related story, page 2).

On Monday, city councilors, city officials, project architects and dance group representatives met informally to discuss plans. Johnson presented the group with four different design concepts, though no votes were taken.

The meetingıs most contentious moment came when Healy blasted contra dancer John Gintell when he expressed concern that the community space wouldnıt provide good acoustics for dancing unless the ceilings reached a certain height.

"Weıre not designing a dance hall," Healy said. "Weıre designing a community center of which dance might be a component. You are not designing the building."

The current ceiling peaks at 23 feet in the center of the dance floor. Johnson estimated ceilings may have to come down to about 12 feet to meet zoning requirements.

But dancers seemed initially supportive of the new plan, even though it would likely mean giving up the VFWıs beloved "hung, sprung" floor, which bounces with movement. Preserving the floor is believed to be too costly.

"I really believe [this] scheme is the way theyıre going to go and is actually the most sensible one," Gintell said after the meeting.

The plan envisions building a new space for the VFWıs reception hall and bar over the current parking lot and then demolishing the old VFW for parking there. The Youth Center would be built above the VFW, and the community space and preschool would go on the third floor.

Each separate area would have its own entrance, Johnson said, quashing fears that teens could easily wander into the VFW bar.

The new structure would be larger and taller than the current building, which is 22,750 square feet and two stories, and will likely pose some zoning concerns.

The purchase deal agreed to by the city allowed the VFW to remain on-site, keep their parking and the large rocketship monument outside the building.

City Councilor Marjorie Decker suggested Monday that an advisory committee for the project be established and contain a representative for the dancers.

"We are changing our plans because the dance community stepped up here," she said. "We should acknowledge that." Contact Sarah Andrews at

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This page last updated on October 10, 2006.