SELDC Provides More Feedback on 41 Berkeley Proposal Says Senior Care Building “Too Tall”

A second advisory review for the proposed project at 41 Berkeley St. was held by the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) on November 2. As previously reported by the Sun, the project proponents, Related Beal and Hacin + Associates, are proposing to redevelop the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT) site, as the school will be moving to a brand new campus in Nubian Square.

The first advisory review was held at the end of August. A meeting regarding the project was also held by the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association, an Impact Advisory Group meeting was held on October 19, and a BPDA public meeting was held on October 29.

The proposed project consists of retaining the existing Franklin Union building with restoration and an addition to be used as commercial and office space, a senior care building, and an affordable housing building with community space along Appleton St.

At the last advisory review hearing, the SELDC provided feedback to help shape the project into something that would fit within the commission’s guidelines, which architect David Hacin said has been worked into the updated presentation of the proposal. The presentation at the November 2 hearing was focused on just the senior care and the Franklin Union Building portion of the proposal.

The team also announced that William Young has been brought on as a historic preservation consultant, who went through some history of the Franklin Union building and the area surrounding the parcel to provide background for the newly proposed buildings.

“The immediate area was once characterized by some quite large buildings,” he said, including the Castle Square Theater and Hotel, Odd Fellows Hall, the National Theater, and the YWCA building at the corner of Berkeley and Appleton.

Existing Site Plan

Hacin explained that the site as it is now is “fairly inaccessible at this point except for students and people who are on the campus of BFIT itself,” he said. The campus is fenced in and has grade changes throughout.

The proposal includes opening up the site with various pathways and building entrances on all sides, as well as “significant landscape and sidewalk improvements, new green spaces and public amenities,” retail, and a new plaza at the intersection of Appleton and Tremont Streets, Hacin said.

Senior Care Building Design

first talked about the proposed design for the senior care building, which will be located in the lower left of the triangle at the intersection of Berkeley and Tremont Streets.  The brick portion of the building will be residential, while the upper floors clad in metal will be the restaurant and lounge spaces.

Hacin said that they believed the Commission told them last time that they did not want to see the senior care building be any taller than the Atelier building across the street, but the Commission said they do not recall saying such a thing, as the height restrictions according to the guidelines say that new buildings cannot be more than 70 feet tall. The senior care building was originally proposed to be 146 feet tall (the same as the Atelier), but the new proposal puts it at 144 feet.

The Commission also said that the mechanical penthouse should be better integrated into the building, and suggested the addition of “rhythm and variety” to the brick bays on the facade.

To address these concerns, Hacin said that the top floor of the building has been removed, the mechanical penthouse has been integrated, and shifted the brick bays “up and down from one another” to create an “exciting rhythm…” he said. There are now two upper floors instead of three.

He said the bays reflect the “modular program” of the senior care units, where there is a “classic window for the bedroom” and the bay window is part of the living space that allows the resident to look up and down Tremont Street. The vertical bricks have also been eliminated from the design, and detail has been added to both the ground floor soffit and the canopy fascia.

At the previous hearing, the Commission also made comments about “distinguishing the corner” as well as incorporating metal into the facade, Hacin said. The new design includes metal wrapped into the corner and the facade and planting at the sidewalk.

Hacin also talked about the side of the Franklin Union Building, where the metal design has been lifted off the ground and brought Ito the bays, and the base is now proposed to be granite and masonry. All portions of the buildings will be “at or below the height of the Atelier building,” Hacin said.

Franklin Union Building

Hacin then talked about the Franklin Union building proposal, which includes “preserving the primary facades and interior floors,” he said, as “no facadectomy” will be completed.

He said the goal is to “provide a leasable office floor plate,” as well as create an outdoor terrace space and to make the building energy efficient.

He presented two schemes for the proposed addition to the Franklin Union Building. Scheme One involves a two story addition that is set back on all sides and pulled back from the sides of the building. Hacin said it “reads primarily as a one story addition,” as most of the first floor is hidden by the building’s existing parapet.

Scheme Two involves the same floor plate but it “floats a little bit above the Franklin Union Building,” he said. He said it is “more avant garde, and potentially more memorable in a good way.”

Commissioner Feedback

Commissioners took turns offering feedback on the new proposal, but all were in agreement that the senior care building is too tall, and some were still unsure if they would approve an addition on the Franklin Union Building.

“The max height of a new building on this spot would be 70 feet,” Commissioner David Shepperd said,  referring to the SELDC’s Standards and Criteria, adding that he is worried  about the proposed height.

“There doesn’t seem to be justification for the rooftop addition that is in line with the description that we discussed in the last meeting. I believe what was mentioned was that we were trying to steer away from having a rooftop addition on the Franklin Union.

Shepperd said he did like the new bays ad the way they look up and down Tremont St., but added that he was concerned about putting new windows into the Franklin Union Building that don’t fit within the historic nature of the building.

Commissioner Fabian D’Souza thanked the design team for addressing some of the concerns raised by the Commission at the August hearing. He said there is a “long way to go in terms of the height of the building as well as the aesthetic features.” He agreed with Shepperd that the new bay style was on the right track, but he said he believes it still needs more work.

Commissioner Freeman said that he is “usually the Commissioner that has the least problem with height,” but he thinks this building “feels too tall.” He said he thinks the top portion of the senior care building “still feels like a mechanical floor.”

He said that more changes to make the bays “more in the vocabulary” of a South End bay window “would make a difference.”

He also said that he would “rather not see an addition” on the Franklin Union Building, but he said he would entertain the idea of an addition if it was done properly. He said he preferred scheme two, but said it either needs to be more similar or more separated from the existing building. “Right now it seems like it’s perched on it,” he said of the addition.

Commissioner Catherine Hunt said she felt like Scheme One was “less intrusive,” and she appreciates the details proposed ad the attention to the brick work, but she agreed that the building “seems too tall.”

Commissioner John Amodeo said that the senior building is double the maximum height according to the guidelines, and the height of the Atelier building doesn’t matter because the Planned Development Area allowed the building to be that tall.

“There’s a major disconnect there,” Amodeo said. “It’s not our role to make the numbers work for the developer.”

He said it’s “hard to talk about detailing” when he doesn’t believe the massing issue has been settled. “We haven’t even talked about the absence of a setback on Tremont Street which I think is an area of concern,” he said.

“Just because the Atelier is at a certain height does not give this license to do the same,” Hunt said.

Shepperd said he agrees with the need to have a setback on Tremont Street.

“The purpose of an advisory review is to help an applicant create a proposal that is approvable,” Amodeo said. “We have to remember our charge as Commisisoners and not to be mesmerized by clearly attractive elements of this proposal,” he continued.

“It is astonishing to me that the developers know what the guidelines are, yet they come in with a proposal that is over twice the allowed height,” Hunt said. “How is that justified, or how do they think it’s going to be justified?”

Amodeo said, “perhaps we may have not been as clear in the first advisory, although I do remember us mentioning that we were not comfortable with the height and the height limit within the regulations for the district is 70 feet.”

Alex Provost of Related Beal said that when looking at the height, “it is a balance that we have worked through over the past year with BFIT to determine the best and most optimal use for the community. Height is obviously something we need to further discuss.”

He said that they are “pursuing a PDA” under the zoning code, which would give different height allowances, and that the team is also going throught reviews with he Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and will be going before the Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC) next week

Amodeo said that the SELDC has participated in joint reviews with both the BPDA and the BCDC before, and “this project might benefit from that as well.” Hunt agreed, adding that she thinks it would be helpful to hear from different agencies about the proposal.

Alexa Pinard of the BPDA said that the agency has been working on holding a joint meeting with the BCDC.

Amodeo said that “it seems like the Commission as a whole feels similarly about the issues,” and Preservation Planner Mary Cirbus said that she will be in touch with Pinard about a potential joint hearing on this project as it moves forward.

Public comment was not permitted at this advisory review hearing, but Cirbus said there will be “several more advisory meetings” and neighbors are encouraged to send questions and feedback regarding this proposal to [email protected].

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