The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) met virtually on October 6, where they discussed a range of project proposals from roof decks to windows. One proposal at 1746-1752 Washington Street sparked a lengthy discussion about how the Landmarks Commission feels about gates in the neighborhood, and how they could help get the conversation started around architecture and urban planning as it relates to the issues of drug addiction and homelessness in the city.
Architect Derek Rubinoff proposed to install a secuirty gate and a fence with an intercom system at 1746-1752 Washington St. at the stairs in between the two storefronts, as it leads up to residential units.
Rubinoff said that this location is about a quarter of a mile from the Mass/Cass intersection.
“Because this area is kind of shaded and a little bit secluded, there are repeated reports to 311 of people calling about needles to be cleaned up,” Rubinoff said, as well as people who are using heroin on the steps, and urinating, defecating, and passing out there as well.
He said they would like to put a gate there to deter people from doing these activities on the steps.
Commissioner John Freeman explained that the Commissioner doesn’t typically approve gates, but suggested that they might explore some sort of temporary gate that could be installed and removed “when things improve.”
Commissioner John Amodeo said that a gate application for this exact property has been reviewed by the Commission before, and was denied. He said there was a “very similar explanation of the need.” He said that though he was against the idea of a temporary or a permanent gate, the discussion might be worth having.
“If we start putting up gates…because of these social issues, we’ll start living in a gated community,” said Catherine Hunt, who was vehemently against the idea of a temporary gate. She said as someone who has experienced some of these issues herself in the neighborhood, she understands the concerns, but she doesn’t think that a gate is the solution.
“I live not far from this area myself and I feel for these neighbors,” Commissioner David Shepperd said, but he agreed with Hunt that this is not something that the Commission would typically approve. He suggested coming up with some sort of compromise.
“The notion of a temporary gate is interesting, but how do you determine the criteria by which it can be removed?” Amodeo asked.
Commissioner Fabian D’Souza also said he has experienced these issues, and “I feel enormously for what the residents are facing,” but he feels that this is a city issue that needs to be addressed by the City.
“I really worry about every other building on Washington Street coming up for a gate like this,” he said.
Rubinoff pushed for the gate, saying that “this is not like your typical South End staircase,” as it is “sandwiched between two storefronts.”
He said that a woman was verbally attacked and “I think it’s only a matter of time before one of the residents is physically attacked.”
He said he was interested in hearing about a temporary gate and would be willing to have a proviso stating it had to be removed by a certain time or for the Commission to review it after a certain period of time when it would be appropriate to remove.
“A gate is not going to stop someone from being verbally abused,” Hunt said, and suggested cameras and upgraded lighting.
She said putting up a temporary gate “doesn’t solve the problem” and “completely goes against the guidelines.”
Amodeo also said he was worried about the precedent it would set, as it is “virtually impossible for applicants to understand why it can happen in one place and not in their location.”
John Sullivan, one of the trustees of the building, said that they have put up lights and signs and involved the police but nothing has stopped the behavior from happening on the stairs.
“This has been an ongoing issue and it’s gotten significantly worse,” he said.
Joel Moran, a resident in the building, said that “if there was a gate, those people wouldn’t be there; they wouldn’t get harassed,” he said, the latter referring to the residents of the building. He also added that he has seen people sleeping in the interior stairs of the building after making it through the front door.
He said that he “understands the perspective of the Commission and that the focus is on design,” but added that he “would question whether our building even has an historic aesthetic,” since the storefronts were not part of the original design of the building.
South End resident Greg Jackson said that he and his partner Peter Sanborn “have the same problem these people have,” and said that he has seen unconscious people, blood, used needles, feces, and vomit. He also said that the building he lives in has a one floor restaurant with a roof, and people were sleeping on the roof.
“If you let them put in a gate, then I would be right in line because the same thing happens to me,” he said, adding that he is opposed to the installation of a gate at the proposed location because of the precedence it would set.
Peter Sanborn also said he would like to see this denied. “I think the Commission unfortunately would not have real clout in being able to enforce a temporary allowance for this type of gate,” he said. “I have real serious concerns.”
Mary Cirbus added that the Commission had received letters from Sullivan and Moran, as well as a log of 51 calls to 311 at this address. She also said that the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services wrote to express support of the proposal and to suggest that they start a discussion about this issue.
“I hear the concerns; I’ve had those concerns,” Hunt said. She said that she has helped organized a task force with the Public Health Commission, area businesses, and others to help with this problem.
“We have to take action as residents and community members,” she said, adding that it is not the job of the Landmarks Commission to address these social issues.
“Perhaps we could be the instigator to get it started,” Freeman said, though he agreed that the Commission is not a public health commission or a law enforcement agency.
After further discussion, the Commission voted to deny the proposal without prejudice and requested that Landmarks staff reach out to the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services as well as the BPDA and other agencies like the Boston Public Health Commission to get a conversation started about architecture and urban planning in the South End.
Amodeo added that he “encourages the applicant to go with the recommendations that have been made” during the hearing, and if they choose to do so, they may come back to the Commission with an alternative to this proposal.