An abutters meeting was held on July 15 at the Copley branch of the Boston Public Library regarding the proposed project at 28 Exeter St., which sits on the corner of Newbury and Exeter streets. Martyn Roetter, Chairman of The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) told the Sun that NABB has several concerns with the project, chiefly that it will set a precedent for other projects on Newbury Street.
The building at 28 Exeter St. currently consists of 96 rental units, but the proposal does not include adding any more units, Roetter said. At the meeting, the project proponents proposed several amenities, including a swimming pool and a roof deck. “[The proponents] argued that they could not be competitive if they could not provide those amenities,” Roetter said.
“We also pointed out that if you provide certain services within the building, people would be less likely to go and acquire services on Newbury St, which is not good for those businesses either,” he continued.
In order to bring these amenities to the building, the proponent is requesting variances in height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which Roetter said NABB is vehemently opposing. “That particular building already exceeds the zoning height and FAR for a reason that at the time was defensible”—it benefited from a tax program because the building included affordable housing, he said.
However, the building is now all market-rate housing and Roetter said that NABB does not support these variances because there’s a “difference between want and need” in this proposal, and NABB does not feel that these amenities are necessary for people to live in that building.
Roetter said that while granting the variances to this particular building “wouldn’t dramatically change Newbury St., it would open the flood gates to all kinds of people coming along” thinking they too should be granted a variance.
For example, another project NABB is eyeing is the purchase of the parking lot on the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth St.s for $14 million. Real Estate Investment Firm L3 Capital has not yet made a proposal for the lot, but Roetter said that NABB “hopes to be in touch” with the new owners. “Given the amount of money they just paid for the land, I wonder if they’ll propose something within the zoning code,” Roetter said. “We don’t object to the idea that this parking lot should be converted to something else but we’ll see whether it makes sense” within the “zoning code and aesthetics and fitting in with the environment on Newbury St.” Having buildings of over 90 feet (which is what is proposed for 28 Exeter) is “a complete violation of the zoning code,” Roetter said. The zoning code on Newbury St. was established to keep the scale and streetscape that’s there now. “Newbury St. is special and that’s what attracts people to it,” he said. “There’s a risk that Newbury St. could become Boylston St.”
Roetter said the meeting was “packed” with concerned residents, including those who currently live at 28 Exeter St. “It was overwhelmingly against the project in the room,” he said. “[State Rep.] Jay Livingstone spoke against the variance,” as did several District 8 City Council Candidates. “I assume that there are some sources of support for the current proposal as it was made,” he said, but he didn’t see much evidence of that at the meeting. Roetter also said that the question of how much the rents would be increased with the new amenities, but the proponents did not provide a specific answer to the question.
Since an abutters meeting was held, the proponents now have a choice to either come up with a modified proposal, withdraw the entire thing, or request a hearing at the Zoning Board of Appeal.
“We are waiting to see what happens,” Roetter said. “From NABB’s perspective, we were quite encouraged that it will be possible to hold the line. The zoning code has been around for a long time and no variances have been granted. We see no justification for granting a variance now.”
Roetter said that he does not believe the Back Bay needs “more expensive residential housing units,” but rather units that can be afforded by people who work for and in the city of Boston. “We hope that the city itself will oppose
when they see the strength of the opposition to the idea,” Roetter said.