The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) on December 7 discussed a proposal for a “demountable structure” on the plaza for the the Atelier 505 building at 505 Tremont St. This proposal has been discussed several times before, but this time, the Commission decided to deny it without prejudice, citing the precedent it would set in the neighborhood.
Architect Tim Love explained that the proposed structure is “part of a strategy to enliven the plaza,” and would be located underneath the four bay windows on the building with a sign band on either side. The structure would allow for more seating for Life Alive Cafe, which is a tenant in the building along with Down Under Yoga Studio.
The latest iteration of the proposal includes a standing seam metal roof that would have a smooth finish and match the light color on the Calderwood Pavilion.
The side of the structure would feature sliding panels on the side that could open in good weather.
The Commission has struggled with how to define this structure at past hearings and at this one, saying that they aren’t sure whether to look at it as a temporary or permanent structure. Love said that the tenants are required by the landlord to make the structure able to be easily removed without a trace, but temporary structures are not typically approved by the Commission.
The “[Inspectional Services Department] considers this a temporary structure,” Love said, adding that it appears to be permanent “in terms of visual expression.” He said that the glass is not insulated and is able to be demounted if need be.
“From the beginning, I’m struggling with the temporary versus permanent sense of the structure, and still am,” Commissioner John Freeman said. “It does seem like it’s moving towards a more permanent structure—whether it’s demountable or not is not in our purview.”
The tenants have a 10 year lease with the landlord, but it is not guaranteed what will happen after that, so there is a possibility that the structure could remain after that and some commissioners had issues with the durability of the materials.
“This could be here 25, 30, 40 years from now,” Commissioner John Amodeo said. “Is this structure designed for that duration?”
Love said that “these are all really good questions,” and said that “it’s a high quality window system”—similar to the one that is installed in the Atelier 505.
“I think we need to look at this like it is a permanent structure,” Amodeo said. “I think we need to give it a definition so we know how to respond to it.”
Love said that the structure will “look like an addition” to someone walking by on the street.
Commissioner Catherine Hunt was having issues with her microphone, so all of her comments were written out to Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission.
“This would set a dangerous precedent,” Hunt wrote.
“It isn’t so much the architectural stylistic precedent that we’re worried about,” Freeman said. “It’s as much a use precedent that we’re worried about. We’ve sat here so many times and turned down temporary additions to other buildings, rowhouses or not…so that’s what makes it difficult. I’m slowly coming around to seeing the potential. There’s a part of me that says why not?”
The Commission then got into a discussion of whether or not to set up a subcommittee to talk about this proposal and hash out some of the details.
“I would really wonder if we could have a subcommittee really flesh the language out for this,” said Commissioner Fabian D’Souza.
“You could say you don’t know how much progress you could make in subcommittee,” Amodeo said. “Sometimes, very subtle and seemingly minor design changes actually can alter an entire appearance. We’re all struggling to approve what you’ve presented to us.”
Love wondered whether or not having a subcommittee would lead to the Commission actually eventually approving this structure.
“If the majority of the Commissioners thing there’s a path to design improvements here, and the majority are honest that there’s a path, there should be a continuance,” he said. But “if this is delaying the inevitable,” and “even with adjustments it is still unlikely that the Commission would approve this,” he said that the “client team here would like to know the truth earlier rather than later.”
Hunt said that she is against having a subcommittee, and had issues with defining the structure. Others felt the same way.
“I don’t know what kind of structure I’m reviewing,” Amodeo said. “It’s such a confusion that it makes it difficult to figure out. It’s neither fish nor foul…I would be with Catherine and say a subcommittee may not get us anywhere.”
Resident Douglas Fisher, who said he lives at the Atelier, said that this “sets a really dangerous precedent for a tent-like structure in the South End.” He suggested that several other businesses would request similar structures, and “you’d be creating an enclave in this property.” He added that “if you were to make this structure permanent…it would have to follow the permanence of the building” with materials.
Ultimately, the Commission voted to deny the project without prejudice, which means the applicant can choose to either abandon the project altogether, or come back with a different proposal. Freeman was not in favor of the denial, but everyone else voted to support the motion to deny.