Scape, a British-based development company, has proposed to build a dormitory building at 1252-1270 Boylston St. that would provide fully furnished living spaces for graduates and undergraduates in the city in an effort to get them out of residential apartments.
On April 22, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) held a very contentious, very well attended public meeting that explained the proposal and allowed the development team to get a much better understanding of how the community feels. The site is currently home to Ramrod/Machine, an LGBTQ+ friendly nightclub, and a large number of the supporters of the club (as well as members and supporters of Gold Dust Orphans, who perform at the club) were present at the meeting to make sure they do not lose their space.
Andrew Flynn, Scape’s CEO, gave a brief presentation at the beginning of the meeting, explaining why he believes that Scape is not a typical development company and that the company is very involved in the operation of these buildings. He said that the building would be fully staffed with professional Scape employees, and not “peer RAs” as many traditional dorm buildings are.
Alexander Fernandez of the Gensler architecture firm provided more details about the Site and the design. The site is a two-story structure that sits across the street from the Guitar Center on Boylston Street, he said, calling the back facade of the building “an eyesore.”
“We want to create spaces that are meaningful,” Fernandez said, and include outdoor space. The building would be 175 feet tall and fit within Boston’s Compete Streets guidelines. He said that the streets would “be designed for everyone,” and be green and welcoming and have access to different modes of transportation nearby. The proposal includes moving from 25-to 35-foot sidewalks and creating a sort of “pocket park” outside the building with bike racks, benches, and planting. Fernandez added that they are working on incorporating a bike lane as well. They are still working out the sustainability details, but they are striving for LEED Silver status, he said.
The materials and design of the building “mimic what’s in the surrounding community,” Fernandez said, with offset windows, brick, and copper all being incorporated into the facade. They are also proposing retail on the ground floor of the building, as well as a black-box theater space to accommodate Machine and the Gold Dust Orphans. Not much information was provided about the theater, other than they are going to have one.
John Bookston of the Fenway Civic Association said that he thinks this building is unwelcome in the Fenway community. “We don’t want Scape!” he exclaimed.
Someone from the Gold Dust Orphans said that when he heard Machine would be closing, he was happy to hear that a theater would be rebuilt in this new space. He said that students should be shifted in to new spaces, which would free up space for families in the apartments. “We are an educational theater company,” he said. “Machine is not a place to lounge,” he added, saying that the Orphans plan on managing the space as they have done in the past. “Boston is a college town; it will always have more than its fair share of students,” he said. “The future is for all of us.
Another person from the Gold Dust Orphans said that “The city does need to take a hard look at how nightlife is being affected by development. The Orphans would be completely and irreparably displaced,” he said. “This family of Orphans needs a home and for some it can be the only family they know.”
There was another group of people at the meeting who wished to speak about the zoning issues of this site. One who worked on getting zoning set in the area said that they “purposely put in a provision that dormitories are a forbidden use on this part of Boylston Street.”
“You need to play by the rules,” she said. “This should not even be discussed until there is some resolution to the zoning issue here because this project is currently illegal.”
Tim Czerwienski of the BPDA responded by saying that “part of the Article 80 process is to talk about the project.” He said that it is common to see proposals for projects that are not zoning compliant, and it is also a decision for the Zoning Board of Appeal to make should the project get that far. He also noted Mayor Walsh’s housing plan—“we are looking to build more student housing as a city everywhere and working to determine the best places for that housing,” Czerwienski said.
A young person who goes to Machine every weekend spoke about the importance of the nightclub to him. “Are you aware of the true nature of what you’re replacing?” he asked the development team. “Machine has been more than a family to me. When I turned 18, Machine took me in and gave me a safe place to go,” he said. “If you really do walk past every day, walk by on Friday night, you’ll see everyone who has nowhere to go. That is the only place I have ever felt truly safe, non-judged, and fully protected.”
Flynn said that the black box theater is in very preliminary stages right now, but “we would love to invite Machine/Ramrod into that process,” he said. Czerwienski said this is also something that could be incorporated into a community host agreement.
Another asked Flynn what the price of one of these units would be, but all he responded with was “below-market rate.” He did not provide a number, despite being asked several times to do so. He said that in order to compete with others, they need to “draw students.”
Another person who works at Northeastern spoke in favor of the proposal, saying that the only way to solve the problem is to build housing like this for students. He said that Boston University, Northeastern, and Boston College are among the schools that do not house graduate students, and “the type of housing that Scape is proposing is precisely the kind of housing these students are looking for,” he said.
“We forced universities to build dorms on their own land,” said Tim Horn of the Fenway Civic Association, adding that 5,825 units of housing have been built on campuses across the city. He thinks the problem with this proposal is the location, as it would be better used for a residential area. “This project is an awesome project if it were being built where it needs to be,” he said. “We won’t get residents in that location that this is being built here.”
There were several other comments about zoning and the location of the building, as some feel that this part of Boylston Street is not one that should have a dormitory in it. City Councilor Josh Zakim said he has “very serious concerns” about the use right now, many of those shared by the Fenway Civic Association.
“We are committed to working with the [Impact Advisory Group],” Flynn said.
“Just because we’re here doesn’t mean this project gets a rubber stamp,” Czerwienski added.
District 8 City Council candidate Kristen Mobilia said she’s concerned that the zoning is “being overstepped.” She wants to know when institutions are going to cap student populations, “because we can’t even handle what we have.”
The person from Northeastern University said that the freshman class at Northwestern is capped at 2800 “and has been for 10 years.”
At the end of the meeting, Flynn made a commitment to Ramrod/Machine that if they continue with this project, the theater space will be built and used for the LGBTQ+ community. A comment was made that it “can’t just be a theater with permanent seats,” it must be inclusive “because people’s livelihoods are at stake,” the person said.
“I look forward to continuing that discussion in a bona fide…way,” Flynn said. This was the first public meeting in the process for this development, and the BPDA is looking for public comments. The comment period is open until May 12.