Addition of Wheelchair Lift and Removal of Beloved Tree Cause Concerns at BBAC Hearing

By Beth Treffeisen

The French Cultural Center was denied without prejudice to incorporate a concealed wheelchair lift at the 300 Berkeley Street location due to concerns over safety, at the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) hearing held on Wednesday, June 14.

The proposed application includes reconfiguring the Berkeley Street entrance by bumping out the stairs about six feet away from the building to make a vestibule that will allow access for a lift that would bring someone using it to the front of the building.

The problem, which was pointed out by the abutters during a Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay architectural meeting, is that this design creates a dark alcove creating a secluded space where people can linger.

“If something happens it is directly going to be our problem,” said an abutter on Berkeley Street. “It could be a security problem and we want to prevent that from happening.”

David Stern the architect for the French Cultural Center said that after hearing concerns from the neighbors they thought of installing a security camera and a light that will go off with motion in the entranceway.

An abutter at the hearing said that for years that entranceway has been dark. Although talk of a motion-censored light was brought up, the abutter said they would prefer a decorative light that will keep the area bright at all times.

Commissioner Jerome CooperKing suggested that the French Cultural Center could put a security gate in front of the vestibule that could be opened by someone operating the lift.

“Why don’t we start with the lighting and have a meeting on the gate down the road if the this becomes an issue,” said Chair Kathleen Connor. “Test it and then come back to us. The lighting may be the answer to the solution.”

Commissioner John Christiansen also pointed out that this house has a sister house next door, and asked if the bump out of the stairs could be reversible. That way, if the house ever does revert back to residential it can easily be reverted back to the original design.

Commissioner Lex Stevens said, “There are just too many moving parts.”

The applicant, David Stern, was asked to come back with a plan for a security gate if needed, revaluation of the lighting, plans for a security camera and to further look into the possibility of reversing this construction.

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Later in the hearing, residents came out to oppose the removal of an ailanthus tree at the front façade of 443 Marlborough Street and replace it with a two and half inch caliper magnolia tree.

The owner, Rodolfo Machado said that the trees roots are causing structural problems with the 1884 four-story brick row house.

The existing tree is adjacent to the entrance path and is approximately 5 feet in diameter near the base and one foot way from the building at grade. Currently, there is sidewalk curb and entrance brick that have been moved outwards and upwards, respectively.

Parker James a 36-year resident and co-founder of the newly formed Charlesgate Alliance said that the area is largely a heat island and the main shade comes from the older, much larger trees such as this ailanthus tree.

“We’ve suffered a large amount of tree lost on this stretch of Marlborough Street,” said James. “We don’t want to see it go and replaced with a tiny little tree.”

In addition, Machado is trying to sell the house. James asked that they would like to talk to the new owners to see if they would be willing to keep the tree.

Caroline Reeves a Back Bay resident said this block, which is located on the other side of Mass Ave., has suffered from many birch trees coming down and that this is one of the last sanctuaries for birds in the area.

Reeves said this tree has become home to many birds, from robin’s to birds of prey that including hawks and owls. “It really was a haven,” said Reeves.

She continued, “I really hope for our neighborhood that this tree can be saved.”

A letter from the Tree Committee of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay stated that it is an old, very large tree that is in good health, but it is causing structural damage to the house and sidewalk. The letter supported taking down the tree as long as it is replaced with a mature tree of at least three inches in diameter.

The BBAC accepted the removal of the tree but instructed the owner to work with the Garden Club of the Back Bay to coordinate a replacement tree. In addition, the stump must be fully removed, the replacement tree should be at least three inches in diameter, and the front garden should be replaced to what it looked like before the damage.

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