South End Landmarks Burning the Midnight Oil: Community Members, Petitioners Believe Process Is Compromised by Late Meetings, Long Reviews

By Seth Daniel and Lauren Bennett

The lengthy agenda for the December South End Landmarks meeting beckoned like a painful dental appointment on the calendar last month as applicants filed into City Hall that afternoon and realized they were in for a long night.

Long nights and longer reviews have become the norm at Landmarks, which has increasingly been marked as a concern in the neighborhood, but the December meeting seemed to break all records – adjourning somewhere near 12:30 a.m.

“When I saw the agenda for that day, I said we’d be there until 10:30 p.m.,” said Vanessa Calderon Rosado, director of IBA, who was there for a very important review of their controversial demolition proposal for the IBA Arts Center. “Our item, though, was not even called until 10:30. By then, everyone is tired, including the commissioners, staff and audience. If the demand is so high to have agendas that are so packed, maybe they need to have more meetings or delegate more to staff. It is unwieldy and not the best process. You walk out of there and you’re spent.”

She is not alone.

Concerns are at an all-time height for the process unfolding monthly at the South End Landmarks Commission – a process that has at times gone beyond midnight in meetings that can go on for up to seven hours.

The meeting in December to review a long agenda, as well as a very important matter regarding the demolition of the IBA Arts Center on West Newton street, has seemingly become the red flag moment for many residents and organizations. That meeting began at 5:30 p.m., but did not adjourn until around 12:30 a.m. – with the most important part of the meeting, that being the Arts Center demo, coming well after 10:30 p.m.

South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox said he has received a number of complaints throughout the South End from people requesting small approvals to large-scale development reviews at Landmarks. He said he is leading the charge for change to the process at the Landmarks.

“The public process that is required in terms of applicants, neighborhood reaction and public comment is severely compromised when meetings are held on a once-a-month basis and those meetings extend into the early morning hours,” he said. “It makes attendance impossible for interested neighbors to attend…Even for things like windows. The Back Bay Architectural Commission has a more enlightened view of windows than the South End Landmarks. That is all because of the viewpoint of one member of the Landmarks Commission who thinks everyone else should share that same viewpoint.”

Landmarks Chair John Amodeo, who is a very vocal member of the Commission, was not available for comment on this article. However, Joe Cornish – of Landmarks – said they strive to conduct meetings in a timely manner.

“The Commission strives to run each meeting in a timely and efficient manner, while ensuring that the community is given ample opportunity to voice their feedback,” said Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission. “The duration of each South End Landmark District Commission hearing differs, as it is determined by the number of applications on the agenda, their complexity, and how closely those applications adhere to the Standards and Criteria.”

However, applicants over the past year have pointed to long reviews that delay their projects, as well as poor communication between City departments and Landmarks. All of it is costly, and in the case of IBA, takes precious resources away from programming for children, the arts community and senior citizens.

Calderon Rosado said it has taken a substantial amount of time for Landmarks and City departments to understand and familiarize themselves with it.

“I think the issue is Landmarks, but also communication between Landmarks and other City departments, specifically ISD,” she said. “Neither of the organizations really are communicating clearly and giving a straight path to an outcome (for petitioners). That has put us in a very challenging limbo and it’s tough because not only can we not proceed, but our programs are affected…We are spending money on things like heat, scaffolding and fire alarm coverage for a condemned building. That’s money we should be investing in our programs and a new building. Obviously, that’s very frustrating.”

Bob Barney, president of the Claremont Neighborhood Association, recently attended the Jan. 7 Landmarks hearing and had some concerns around the length of the hearing.

He said that four projects in the Claremont Neighborhood Association area were before the Commission last Tuesday night, and the “commissioners did a really nice assessment of the projects.” Barney applauded the Commission for their thorough comments and their openness with the project teams about what can be done to improve their projects. He added that the Commission seemed receptive of comments from neighbors as well.

However, he said he was at City Hall until 11:15 p.m. discussing the Northampton Street Residences proposal with the Commission, the project team, and the community. These hearings typically begin at 5:30 p.m.

“Finishing at 11:15 p.m. is really late,” he said, but “Landmarks did the best they could—they went through the agenda. Since they had a number of projects that were significant, I think that lengthened the presentations.”

Barney suggested that when the agendas are heavy like this in any particular month, the Commission might hold more than one meeting to cut down on the length but still be able to provide appropriate and sufficient feedback to each applicant, as well as take the time to hear comments from the community.

Additionally, “I would say maybe an opportunity for them would be to look at the agenda and if they find it’s too overwhelming for one meeting, maybe they could give certain start and end times to monitor it a little better,” he added. “I think they’re stuck; I really do,” Barney said.

Barney said he understands the need for these lengthy conversations surrounding a project, as they generate feedback that ultimately creates a better project for everyone, but at the same time he understands that having to wait hours for a proposal to be discussed is also frustrating.

“I really enjoyed listening to them,” Barney said of the Commission. “They provided insight that I certainly hadn’t thought of. I totally appreciate that.”

The number of development projects in the South End continues to grow, which leads to these lengthy design hearings in which a lot of different people want to prove input, but Barney said they are necessary, as he feels the project team is “more apt to listen to someone like rather than an abutter with a defined perspective. Even though it was long, I appreciated everything they did,” Barney said. “I think that’s a big benefit to everybody.”

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