It looks like Chinatown’s high school has finally found itself a new home

After a decades-long search, the Josiah Quincy Upper School seems to have finally found a permanent site in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.
In an op-ed in Sampan, Boston’s bilingual Chinese-English newspaper, Mayor Marty Walsh announced last week that congregants at the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church have agreed to sell their property at 249 Harrison Ave. to the city as a site for the new school.

City officials said the church accepted an offer of $9.5 million for the property. Demolition is slated to begin in 2021, with hopes that the new school would open to students in the fall of 2023.

The Josiah Quincy Upper School, home to 549 students from grade 6 to 12, has long outgrown its beginnings as a pilot program — and its present-day facilities. For years, JQUS was spread out across three buildings, including the former Lincoln School (built in 1911), an office building, and two modular buildings for the middle grades. Currently, the school relies on the Chinatown YMCA for physical education.

The school’s co-headmaster Richard Chang said those modular buildings especially have overstayed their welcome. Built to last for two or three years in 2000, he said they now see “regular leakage of rain and snow.”

JQUS’s enrollment is nearly half Asian, the highest proportion among BPS high schools. And since 2010, JQUS has been one of two BPS schools to offer challenging, research-focused programming through the International Baccalaureate program.

Chang touts the school’s national reputation for rigor. In 2016, the Washington Post named JQUS one of the 500 most challenging high schools in America for its college-level curriculum. But Chang said JQUS will need laboratory space, a library, and a gym to remain an IB school for the foreseeable future — making the move to a new school an almost-existential issue.

And it hasn’t happened yet. Chang, who first came to the school 16 years ago, said, “We’ve been left at the altar several times.”

In the early 2000s, they had hopes of occupying the former Don Bosco high school, but that didn’t pan out. Then, shortly after Walsh took office in 2014, the Massachusetts School Building Authority rescinded its support for a planned building over Interstate 93 that would be shared by JQUS and the Boston Arts Academy, citing a host of logistical and architectural concerns.

Then in 2016, the city announced its intention to move JQUS to the present-day site of the McKinley South End Academy, which serves students who didn’t thrive in larger schools. After community resistance, the city abandoned that plan as well.

So this week, city officials greeted the news that the church was willing to sell as something like a godsend. “It’s really, really exciting,” said Pat Brophy, Mayor Walsh’s chief of operations. Brophy, who described himself as a 25-year veteran of public construction, said the JQUS project has long been hamstrung by the shortage of available plots in and around Chinatown. “It was really a supply-and-demand thing,” he said.

Brophy said the process that began this week was a function of serendipity; the church is “looking at potentially building a new church on the other side of the Pike. And the timing of that, combined with the timing of our request to purchase, I think it just worked out.”

He described the $9.5 million price tag as “a lot of money ... but a good investment in Boston’s children [at] a fair price.”

Under the deal, Brophy said, the church will continue to occupy its building through 2021, and use school-building space temporarily to continue its work as the Harrison Avenue building is demolished. (That means this move won’t open up considerable ‘swing space’ as other schools are moved or reconfigured elsewhere in the city as part of the ongoing BuildBPS initiative.)

Church leaders couldn’t be reached for comment, but city officials said congregants approved the sale last week by a 90 percent vote.

Chang, the headmaster, agreed that the church site is “very centrally located” and in a position to serve all the inhabitants, new and old, of Boston’s downtown area. But given the troubled history of development — and since the church hasn’t started its own new building yet — he’s still in wait-and-see mode.

“I’m not inclined to anticipate anything as a foregone conclusion,” he said.

But Brophy suggested this one isn’t like those other attempts. He said he expects the city’s public-facilities commission to authorize the sale this week. Then, he said, “it’s just a matter of everyone signing on the dotted line.”

WBUR 90.9FM and the Reporter have a partnership in which the two news organizations share content. This story first appeared on WBUR’s website on May 10.