After an advisory review and a contentious hearing in front of the full Commission, a subcommittee was formed to further discuss the proposal for 256-260 Newbury St. At the Dec. 12 Back Bay Architectural Commission hearing, Meyer and Meyer Project Manager Adam Gilmore presented a proposal for the buildings, which includes a penthouse addition and roof decks, along with a restaurant at the digout on the ground level, open retail at the first floor, and a boutique hotel with 18 units.
At the subcommittee hearing on Jan. 7, Gilmore presented a tweaked proposal, with the same glass doors on the building, and masonry infill between them. Gilmore stated that it was more important to the team to have transparency at the first floor retail level, so the two-story addition is in brick, and the parking will have brick pavers with a granite border. It will be six spaces with a landscape buffer.
The biggest issue the Commission had was with the cast glass that woulds be used to replicate historic details on the building. Some were concerned that it would look tacky, but others thought it would bring the block back to life.
“This is a very challenging project,” Commissioner David Eisen said. “Your first proposal I thought was much more interesting,” he added, referring to the advisory review proposal that contained much more glass and transparency on the building. The glass and the precedent it would set was once again a huge topic of discussion at the meeting.
Gilmoire said that the sense of feedback from the Commission and the community made them change their project to include much less glass.
Eisen reiterated what he has been saying throughout the process: “Can you successfully transform masonry into open glass and come across in a convincing, effective, and viable way, as opposed to Disneyland?”
Commissioner Robert Weintraub agreed with Eisen that the original proposal was “great.”
“It’s almost like design by committee, which I have a fear of,” said BBAC Chair Kathleen Connor said of the changes in the proposal. “This piece could be quite an indicator of an economic boom.” She said that a balance of development and preservation is important, but “we have to be fearless in some ways.”
Commissioner John Christiansen said that the buildings as they are now have structural integrity, and they would have to be replaced in a way that helped them keep their solidity. He suggested that a mockup of the proposed facade should be made to see if the transparency would really work for retail.
Since the cast glass would be custom made, it would take a lot of time to make a mockup. The design team said that the company they are working with would come out with a laser, make a cast, and then pour the glass in. Weintraub said that a mockup “probably isn’t feasible.”
Eisen was concerned with the fact that no one has done this kind of cast glass before. “I would like some sense that this would come across not as a confection but as a kind of wonderful architectural element,” he said.
Tom High from backbayhouses.org told the Commission that when they write the certificate of appropriateness, they should “put in the reasons why this is a unique project.” He said that this is a “huge exception for replacing original masonry with glass,” and they should specify details, material, and quality expected, and the applicant must stick to that.
The design team returned before the full Commission on Jan. 9, when they will discuss the details from this subcommittee meeting further, including elevations of the rooftop equipment, a study of other digout restaurants on the street and measurements of what they’re proposing for their restaurant, explore if it would be possible for handicapped access to go behind the building, and having a second staircase in the patio area.