SELDC Hears Initial Proposal for 41 Berkeley St., Including a Senior Care Building and Affordable Housing

The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) held an advisory review on August 24 for the proposed redevelopment of the parcels at 41 Berkeley St., currently home to Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT).

Developer Related Beal, along with Hacin and Associates architects, are the project proponents, and spoke to the Commission about where they are in the design process. This hearing was purely advisory, and gave the Commission a feel for the direction the project is taking, as well as to ask questions and offer feedback. No public comment was permitted at the hearing, but public comment for this project can be directed to [email protected], and there will be opportunities for the public to make comments at future hearings.

Alex Provost of Related Beal said that this will “likely be the first of many meetings in this advisory format setting,” as they wanted to present their conceptual idea “sooner rather than later,” and they have met with direct abutters.

BFIT President Emeritus Anthony Benoit said that BFIT, which educates young people from the Boston area, has been in the South End for more than 110 years, is excited to move its campus to Nubian Square. He said that the existing building at 41 Berkeley St. is a “wonderful old building,” and BFIT was grateful for its time there, but they are able to construct a new campus at 1011 Harrison Ave. that will meet their needs.

David Hacin of Hacin and Associates discussed the site at 41 Berkeley, which is “anchored by the Franklin Union building at the corner of Berkeley and Appleton,” he said, adding that there is “lots of deferred maintenance and other issues” with the Franklin Union building.

The project team’s goal is to preserve the historic facade of the Franklin Union building and integrate it “into the fabric of the site to reflect and sustain the South End and BFIT’s rich past,” according to a slide presented.

Aside from the restoration of the Franklin Union building to be used as commercial and office space, a senior care building and an affordable housing and community space is also proposed for the triangular lot.

Hacin said that there are “specific needs” such as particular dimensions and distances from elevators that are required for the senior care building, so that’s why these types of buildings  are usually built in the suburbs. But the team is examining how this type of building could work in an urban setting while still making sure all requirements are met.

He said that he and the team walked the neighborhood through the streets and back alleys, adding that there are “15 different ways” to walk home through the South End, so he wanted to incorporate that feel through this site as well.

There will be a new open space that goes from Appleton and Tremont over to Berkeley, with spots along the way for pedestrians.

“Our proposal, conceptually, is to bookend the Atelier project on the other side of the street,” Hacin said.

For the Franklin Union building, which was constructed in 1907, he said that they “want the building to look pretty much like it did the day it opened.” He said that though the building is currently 76 feet tall, it is only four stories, which makes it difficult to convert the building into something easily used in the 21st century, and there are currently no accessible entrances to the building.

“We want to get this right,” he told the Commission. “Our goal will be to work with you on how best to restore the primary facades.” A vertical addition was also proposed for the Franklin Union building that would put it at 105 feet tall, which left many Commissioners with concerns about height precedent in the district.

The team also hopes to create highly sustainable buildings for this project, but many of those details have yet to be worked out.

For the proposed affordable housing and community building on Appleton St., which would include a horizontal addition to 4 Appleton St., “our thought was to extend a new affordable housing building that would be connected into the facade for Appleton St.,” Hacin said, and use the existing arches to create an entrance for the residential lobby, and have a “new, glassy community room and community space.”

The senior care building is proposed to be 145 feet tall, and will be a residential building with an activated retail facade on the ground floor. A location within the courtyard will be designated for off-street loading during scheduled hours, including a shuttle van pickup and dropoff from four to six times a day. Any visitors to the property and valets will be handled on Tremont St., he said.

“There will be very light dropoff here,” he said. “This product here is meant for the demand of seniors who don’t want to move out of the city.”

Overall, there are several goals the team has for the project as a whole.

“One of the things we’re working on is the idea that the light and shade that would fall on this project would pick up on the character and detail of the South End,” Hacin said.

The goal is also to create a “much greener and accessible space” that properly harvests water and “takes away some of the heat island effects that currently exist on the site.” He said that the roofscapes will likely include greenery.

Several other details regarding each building were discussed between the team and the Commissioners, but Provost said that “we would love to continue this conversation as quickly as it makes sense, but we will have more information on some of these issues,” such as sustainability and transportation, in the next month or two.

Commissioner John Amodeo said that it has “often taken more than one advisory meeting before the Commission feels the project is ready to hear a more formal application,” adding that “given how many questions we’re having already,” there might be a need for several advisory meetings and joint meetings with the Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC).

“We have to talk about what the limits are for the site and explore what’s being proposed compared to what is allowable on the site,” Commissioner Catherine Hunt said. “That’s going to be a big topic of conversation.” She said she would like to see a lower height for the buildings as “it just seems awfully high.”

Commissioner John Freeman said he would like to see shadow studies to “understand a little better how it’s going to impact the site.” He agreed with Hunt’s concerns about the height, and also said he would like to hear more about the sustainability aspects of the building.

He said that what has been shown so far is “coming along very nicely,” but he is “not there yet with the materiality.”

Commissioner David Sheppherd said that “I do like that you guys are using brick,” and it “seems to mostly be in character with the South End.”

Commissioner Fabian D’Souza said he “won’t be willing” to approve any building above 105 feet. He said that in the South End, he is concerned with “allowing more and more buildings to grow” to a height above what is currently allowed by the guidelines.

“I appreciate your attention to history and what happened on the site,” Commissioner John Amodeo said. “I can see how you used it to inform your approach.”

He said it would be “hard for us to approve” an addition on the Franklin Union building. He said that he feels the corner is “too anonymous” on the senior care building.

He said that “at some point we will have to stop…and say the district has no more capacity for anything over 70 feet,” he said, referencing the higher heights proposed.

“The legacy we leave to the next generation of Landmarks Commissioners cannot be a district that has a precedent of one tower after another in the district,” he said. “If we have no other choice than to accept a tower, I think we ought to be honest about having a tower on the corner of this building.”

He said that the Atelier project is “honest about having a tower on the corner,” as different materials and a different fenestration are used.He asked the design team to “explore masonry alternatives.”

To round out his comments, Amodeo said, “there are some very good things within the proposal that you can carry forward.” He said the next step is to think about how the Commission will “structure the review process moving forward,” which he said will probably require some “offline discussions” between Related Beal, Hacin and Associates, and the Commission to “structure the appropriate review process that will be efficient and streamlined but comprehensive.”

Hacin said that this is a “really significant project for the South End,” and there were “a lot of really excellent comments.”

More hearings for this project will be announced on the City’s website once they are scheduled.

BFIT Announces New CEO Appointment, Aisha Francis, Ph.D.

Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology recently announced that Aisha Francis, Ph.D. has been appointed as the college’s new Chief Executive Officer following her role as BFIT’s Chief of Staff. The appointment of Dr. Francis comes as BFIT leadership and its Board of Directors navigates the shifting higher-education landscape and prepares its students for success in a new dynamic of remote and hybrid learning.

“At a time of economic uncertainty and a national movement towards social justice and equity, BFIT’s unique focus on students of color and diversity is more relevant than ever before,” said Jed Nosal, Board Chair. “The appointment of Dr. Francis reflects the college’s vision for a dynamic higher education option leading to strong career paths for our students. The Board is confident that Dr. Francis offers the unique skills to lead all aspects of operations during this period of transformation, positioning the college to grow in the ways we serve students for years to come.”

In her newly created role, Dr. Francis will lead the college’s senior executive team, overseeing BFIT’s academic, admissions, and administrative departments. Additionally, Francis will spearhead the college’s development efforts of its new campus in Roxbury’s Nubian Square. BFITs current President, Anthony Benoit, has transitioned to President Emeritus and will depart from the college by the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

“Working in partnership with the senior leadership team at BFIT, the faculty, and the Board, I know we can play a critical role in creating opportunities for our students in a time of uncertain-ty,” said Dr. Francis. “I am delighted to play an expanded role at BFIT, and I look forward to deepening our relationships with businesses, the civic community, and elected officials in the year ahead.”

A presidential search committee, under the guidance of the college’s Board of Directors, has been established with the goal to have a new President in place by the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

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