The Harriet Tubman House project at 566 Columbus Ave. was back before the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) at a virtual hearing on May 18 after being continued from the May 5 hearing. The project was approved in concept and will move to a subcommittee to refine the last of the details before coming back to the full Commission for a final approval.
Commissioner John Amodeo had to excuse himself from this portion of the hearing as he is the landscape architect for the project, but two newly appointed commissioners, Fabian D’Souza and David Shepperd, joined the Zoom call for their first ever hearing as Commissioners.
“We see the Commission as an asset and a partner working both with us and the community at large,” said David Goldman of New Boston Ventures. This is the fourth time the Commission has met with the development team on this project.
Though the use of a building is not in the purview of the SELDC , Richard Taylor, a co-developer on the project, said that the program for development of this building is home ownership, recognizing that many artists in the South End and Lower Roxbury have been displaced over the years.
Architect Jonathan Garland went through a detailed presentation of the proposal, beginning with the historical context of the existing building and the neighborhood, as well as several South End buildings from which he drew inspiration for the new building. The existing building at 566 Columbus Ave. will be demolished to create a six story residential building with a nonprofit commercial space and an “express cafe” on the ground floor.
“We’re really trying to think of this building as a bookend,” Garland said, since it stands at the corner of two prominent streets in the South End. The ground floor will be lighter in color to allow for transparency and vibrancy, and the upper floor and corner of the building will be a sculpted, heavy gauge plate metal.
The project has gone through several iterations over its time with the SELDC, and the cladding of the building has gone from fiber cement to red brick, and the design team has also done away with balconies that hung over the edge of the building. The windows have also been more defined, and the railings have been more refined.
“We feel like the design modifications in concert with the Landmarks Commission have come a long way,” Garland said. “We’ve done other things to be even more consistent with the district.”
The building has a “signature roof element with a strong cornice band that separates it from the lower portion,” Garland said, and the building feel has a “clear line of base, middle, top.”
The garage door detailing has been adjusted to better fit within the neighborhood, and the transition between this new building and 220 West Springfield St. has been refined as well.
The Commission was impressed with Garland’s presentation, and Commissioner John Freeman called it “carefully researched and so thoughtfully presented.” They also appreciated the inclusion of the historical context and research that went into the development of this new building.
They also seemed to favor the latest proposal. “I think it’s a great improvement,” said Commissioner Catherine Hunt.
“It’s a lot more fitting with the neighborhood in general than the previous design,” said Commissioner David Shepperd. He did question why the garden space on West Springfield St. doesn’t connect farther down “like most townhouses on that street and many others.”
Garland responded that “a lot of it goes back to precedent,” as buildings that sit at the corner of two main streets are considered “bookend” buildings and did not have garden fronts at all. He said they still wanted to include a space to “soften” the look of the building.
“There is only a courtyard within it and no significant green space around it,” Shepperd continued. “The windows have a lot of detail around them that I think it’s a vast improvement over the design with all the metal on the whole building.” He said it “seems quite busy in the brickwork,” and he said the tall metal “seems out of place to me.” He suggested a material that is “more consistent with Mansard roofs in the area” such as slate.
On the other hand, “I appreciate the fact that you have tried to make the corner more sculptural with metal,” Commissioner Fabian D’Souza said.
Commissioner Catherine Hunt said she has concerns about the massing on West Springfield St.
“I think you guys are on the way to a really great building here,” Commissioner John Freeman said. “The difference between where we started and where we are now is phenomenal. It’s going to be a stellar building when it’s done.”
Freeman’s concerns were also with the height on West Springfield St. “Part of that is in the renderings; it does seem to loom over the rest of the street,” he said, which is a “condition which happens frequently in the South End.”
He suggested setting the building back farther or lower it to “reduce the feeling,” He also said that the currently proposed five degree slope of the Mansard roof is “probably a bit too little” and “not quite enough to show off the fact that you do have the sloping Mansard.”
He said he appreciates the “shingle-like” material for the Mansard roof, and the “brick parts of the building have massing that is excellent.” He had some issues with the corbeling of the brick—calling it “a little art deco”— and wondered if It could be defined a little more so it better represents a South End window.
He said the “sculpted metal is fantastic. It kind of has a fantasy part to it,” adding that this was the “right way to turn a corner.”
Comments from the public were mixed, with some people wanting the Commission to wait until the public health emergency was over to make any decisions, some concerned about the loss of the history of the building, and others fully supporting the project.
One person said that she feels the loss of this building is adding to the “black history in the neighborhood” being “erased.” She said she wanted to know more about the existing mural and how that will be preserved once the building is demolished.
Garland said that a mural advisory committee has been formed and is made up of arts community members and “those closely tied to the original commission of the mural.” He said that this committee has met several times and are considering the best ways to preserve the significance of the mural.
Jared Katsiane shared similar concerns about the mural. “If they truly believe it’s iconic, you don’t rip it down and reproduce it,” he said. “Public art is still art.”
Chris Cox, a South End resident, said that he believes the building “looks terrific,” and praised the design team for doing their homework on other buildings in the South End.
Other neighbors also praised the look of the building and appreciated the changes it has gone through to get to this point.
“The presentation was thoughtful,” said John Ruggieri. “I just think it’s a great addition to the South End and that corner in particular.”
Alina Walhart said that she and her husband are long time residents of the South End and “we think the building is a nice landmark to the corner.” She said the red brick is a “nice touch that goes well with the rest of the buildings in the South End.”
Others were not so enthusiastic about the project.
“I find it unconvincing that this process has actually been diligently and thoughtfully done,” said Gabrielle Ballard. “The mural advisory committee does not sound like a satisfactory answer.” She said that the fact that “the Commission is bulldozing through this process in the midst of a pandemic is wildly irresponsible.”
Goldman reiterated that the committee is “made up primarily of neighborhood people who are interested in art and preserving the mural.” He said that the late artists’ widow is on the committee as well. “I hope that helps inform you where we are with it and where the thinking is,” he said.
Nino Brown said that as a teacher, he was planning on bringing his students to the Harriet Tubman House to learn about the history of the house, and wondered how the Black history was being preserved.
Goldman said that they have agreed to maintain an art gallery in the building, and the sale of the building “ensures the future” of United South End Settlements (USES) a nonprofit which primarily service communities of color. He said that with the sale of the building, USES will be able to continue offering these services moving forward.
Other general public concerns with the building were the height and massing, as well as the loss of green space.
Commissioner John Freeman said that this project has been in the purview of the SELDC for about a year, and they had already been discussing it for three hours on Monday night, so “I think it’s time to move it to the next step.”
The Commission unanimously voted to approve the building in concept with details remanded to a subcommittee of John Freeman and Catherine Hunt, with David Shepperd as an alternate. Any meetings of this subcommittee are open to the public.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to hold up this building due to the pandemic,” Freeman said. “Construction is way down the road,” he added, and felt that it was “fairest to move it tot he next step.”
Details to be discussed in the subcommittee include the connection to West Springfield St., the datum line, the height, alternative detail in the metal and parapet, articulation of the windows, and shadow studies for the overhang in the front of the building. Once the subcommittee works out a final design proposal, it will come back before the full Commission for a final vote