After an almost year-long process, the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) finally approved a proposal for the Hotel Alexandra. Attorney Mac LaCasse said that the project has already received approval from the Boston Civic Design Commission, the Boston Planning and Development Agency, and the Zoning Board of Appeal. The project proponents came before the SELDC on Sept. 3 with their formal application for design review after appearing before the Commission several times under an advisory review.
David Nagahiro, a principal at CBT Architects, said that by the lengthy comment process and the level of input from the city, “We were able to lead to a better design for the project.” He said the team “took the input seriously,” and crafted a response that was “respectful and sensitive” to this input.
The focus for this presentation was on the historic restoration of the Hotel Alexandra, and then a brief discussion of the proposed tower addition. Nagahiro said that a materiality study was done in order to reduce the impact of the building on the skyline, and they wanted the material to blend in instead of stand out from the rest of the historical facade and be a “backdrop to the ornamental building itself,” Nagahiro said.
“We looked at this as a full restoration”—replicating some of the missing elements, repointing, and cleaning the stone,” said Lisa Howe of Building Conservation Associates, Inc., the historic preservation consultant for the project. She said the most difficult part of the restoration planning is the cresting on the building, because reference photographs were blurry and no cresting remains on the building today. In addition, a lot of the cast iron storefront remains, as well as most of the stone on the facade.
She said the middle door will have an accessible entrance, and doors on either side will be historically restored.
Some of the details, such as the finials on the edge of the cresting, had to be designed based off of catalog images to get them to appear as close to the original as possible. “We feel like we have the proportions nailed down,” Howe said. “We have some things that we can pull from physical evidence that we have.”
“I think they’re very careful, very comprehensive, and it’s outstanding what they’re planning to do,” said Commissioner Catherine Hunt.
“I agree,” said Commissioner John Freeman. “It is very thorough; a lot of open questions remain though.”
Commissioner John Amodeo said he agrees with his fellow Commissioners, and he is “excited and pleased at the thoughtfulness and the authenticity to the choices.” However, he said the SELDC needs to remain involved with all the unanswered questions and needs to be a resource moving forward as more choices are made with the project.
Before discussing the addition portion of the proposal, the Commission took public comment on the restoration of the Alexandra facades. Most comments were extremely positive as neighbors would like to see the project move forward to get rid of the eyesore that is the current building.
Steve Fox of the South End Forum said he is also on the IAG for this project, and “based on what we in the community have learned, we’re incredibly supportive of this particular approach of the restoration,” he said. “This building is incredibly important to the South End and its restoration is, we think, pretty vital,” he added.
Alison Pultinas of Mission Hill Fenway Neighborhood Trust, said “We don’t want to create a fake Disney image of this building,” and that reusing as much of what is currently there as possible is the best way to go.
Senior Preservation Planner Nick Armata said that the Commission received 163 letters of complete support, nine letters of opposition, and three letters of concern, which means there is no opposition or support.
The next portion of the proposal focused on the addition, but the Commission wanted the design team to focus on general details surrounding the height, massing, and general approach to the tower.
“We’ve taken a lot of feedback for how much to set the building back,” Nagahiro said. “We’ve pared down the details on the facade itself.”
He said they tried to create a backdrop for the historic building that was “repetitive” and that creates a visual separation between the two buildings.
The hotel will be 13 stories and have approximately 150 rooms. There has been much discussion regarding the details of the tower, including the blank wall that faces Roxbury. But the SELDC just wanted to know the basics so they could decide whether or not to approve the addition in concept, as the details will be worked out as the project progresses.
“The renovation of the Alexandra has been paramount to us,” Commissioner Amodeo said. He said a minimal addition to the Alexandra “used to be too much,” as many proposals have been heard for the building over the years.
“Thirteen stories is a little tougher to swallow—how much are we willing to see the Alexandra restored and at what cost?” He said. “Approval of a tower is a precedent we want to avoid, before we lose this four-, five-, and six-story neighborhood” that the Commission is charged to protect and preserve, he added. “We make the decision with some handwringing and a little bit of reluctance, but the restoration of the hotel in mind. We need to be careful about how we move forward with it.”
Public comment was then taken for the tower portion of the project, but again, it was overwhelmingly positive from people who would like to see the hotel restored.
“We feel confident that this is the only way to get there; we feel the team has been responsive and engaged, and we’re encouraged by that,” said Alison Frazee of the Boston Preservation Alliance. She added that she wanted to make sure the language was very clear in the provisos about the precedent.
“When we talk about conceptual approvals for massing, in that approval, if we make it, in my opinion, it’s come to the right place,” said Commissioner Freeman. “We are very close to having a very well-detailed building.”
The SELDC unanimously approved the preservation aspects of the project as well as approve the tower conceptually, which received applause from those in attendance. “We have to establish a subcommittee,” Commissioner Amodeo said, which will hash out the details of the tower and continue to work with the design team. Meetings of this subcommittee will be advertised and open to the public.