By Beth Treffeisen
What is now a quiet block of residential units on the west side of Hereford, between Commonwealth and Newbury Street, will soon be home to storefronts and offices.
After years of controversy following a string of violations at the properties from 45 to 53 Hereford Street, the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) granted approval to construct a three-story addition attached to the rear elevations of 49-53 Hereford Street, converting two residential units to retail.
The addition will take over a presently empty parking lot, except for a few planters, and will transform a brick wall along Newbury Street into contemporary storefronts.
“We want to make a modern building that feels and aesthetically looks like a traditional building,” said Guy Grassi an architect from Grassi Design Group Inc. “If you squint it could be an old building.”
The Commission voted 7 -1, with Commissioner Patti Quinn voting against due to too many moving parts. Commissioner Lex Stevens recused himself from the vote.
This application was previously brought before the BBAC in an advisory hearing on October 13. The same properties were brought before a violations hearing this past September.
Other work in this project includes removing the penthouse addition that is currently in violation, add fenestration and dormers at the Newbury Street elevation, reconfigure fenestration at the rear elevation, repair masonry, install mechanical equipment on the roof and re-landscape area around the proposed addition.
Provisions to the application include restoring the facades of 45 to 49 Hereford Street, which will remain residential, working with staff on lighting and signage, and including an irrigation system to the new plantings.
Samuel Goldstein from the City of Boston law department cleared up issues regarding the applicants right to move forward in front of the BBAC. He stated that they have received all of their zoning relief, despite being challenged in court under a 2014 zoning case.
As well, the day before this hearing took place another case was brought forward against the BBAC when a preliminary junction was filed to prevent the Commission from moving forward with this application. Goldstein said the judge ruled in favor of the Commission.
Based off of the applicants having all their zoning passed and the recent decision by the judge, Goldstein believes the applicants had a right to go forward in the hearing.
“I would like to say that I am in full support of this and modifications and the removal of that hideous and disgusting penthouse and putting the fire stairwells within the building; it’s just an enormous improvement from a safety standpoint,” said Commissioner David Sampson. “From an aesthetic standpoint I’ve looked at that for 45 years –it’s just mind boggling the improvement.”
Commissioners also asked about how people will be drawn into the stores and asked the design team to come up with signage to go with the project.
In the public comment period, letters against this project outweighed those in favor in about three to one. The Commission also limited public comment to four minutes each during the hearing.
The Boston Preservation Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization that protects and promotes the use of historic buildings and landscapes in Boston’s neighborhoods came out against this application.
“The Alliance feels strongly that the Commission should not consider this project until all outstanding violations are appropriately and adequately resolved,” wrote Greg Galer the executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance to the Commission. “Allowing this proposal to be heard despite outstanding violations sets a poor precedent for future projects and disincentives adherence to the guidelines and the process.”
Previous violations such as removing the paint on the masonry and removing the penthouse the Commission approved as part of this application.
Galer also pointed out that the space is not a “missing tooth” on Newbury Street, stating it is not necessary to build on this site at all and by doing so alters the historically open space. New infill on this land he said, threatens the unique consistency of this historic stable block, which differs in look and feel from the rest of the Back Bay.
The general manager of Sonsie, the restaurant that abuts the new property at 327 Newbury Street voiced concerns over flooding and sewer back up in the restaurant that occurred after the back rears of the Hereford Street properties were covered with asphalt.
Sue Prindle from the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) asked to not rush this project because “it’s complicated.”
NABB has come out against this project for a number of reasons including the mass and the height of the new addition, the rear yard extension that doesn’t follow the guidelines of being two stories not four, and restricting the passageway that goes along Sonsie’s restaurant to the rear.
“I would say it’s going in the right direction but it’s not there yet,” said Prindle.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association thought differently.
“This is a project that should be approved tonight,” said Mainzer-Cohen. “This is an area that has been contributing nothing to the retail or the environment. Adding retail on Newbury Street with the highest dollar and larger windows is exactly what should be done for the taxpayers of the city.”
She continued, “I would request most passionately that this Commission put an end to this endless process.”