By a majority vote of nine against, three for, and with two abstentions, Chester Square Neighbors rejected a motion put forward at the group’s virtual meeting on Wednesday, April 6, to send a letter to Mayor Michelle Wu asking that the redevelopment of the Hotel Alexandra undergo further review by the “appropriate city agencies” in light of its proposed change in use from a boutique hotel to a condo development.
The developer, Alexandra Partners, now intends to transform the historic building located at Washington Street and Massachusetts Avenue into “Alexandra Residences,” a mixed-use project with ground floor restaurant and café space, a rooftop level bar/restaurant, and 76 condo units, 33 of which would be compact (eight studios, 24 one-bedrooms, and one two-bedroom unit), and 10 would be designated as affordable housing under the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP).
Since a proposed 150-room boutique hotel was approved for the location by the BPDA board in March of 2019, the pandemic upended the world’s economy, with hospitality being one of the hardest hit industries. Alexandra Partners had even considered selling the property after investors pulled out of the proposed hotel, but the developer was eventually able to find financing for a residential project, said Marc LaCasse, the developer’s attorney, during a virtual city-sponsored meeting on Feb. 3, when the intended project change in usage was discussed.
Dartagnan Brown, an architect for the project, also said at that time the height and massing of the 71,000 square-foot project would remain the same as what was previously proposed, and that the “historic façade, which underwent major scrutiny, will remain intact.”
The South End Landmarks District Commission (SELDC) approved the project on Oct. 30, 2019, while the BPDA board approved it on Oct. 14, 2021.
The project is scheduled to go before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal on April 26 as the develop is now seeking several variances related to its proposed change in usage.
In a letter from neighborhood residents and organizations to Mayor Wu, dated March 23, asking for expedited further review of the project by the city, the signatories “urge [her] to require the design be again reviewed given the substantive change in use” and further states “not to do so will inevitably set a precedent not only for the South End, but for developers wishing to ignore construction guidelines which have well served the city.”
The letter also asserts that the pending approval of the project now relies on approvals previously made by the BPDA and SELDC, which were “for a different use than what is now proposed.”
According to the letter, the increased height of the project, now at more than 150 feet, is twice the height limit for new construction in the South End Landmark District, while the developer had applied for and was granted a height variance for the purpose of accommodating enough rooms to attract a major hotel chain to acquire or “franchise” the building.
The letter also asserts that the BPDA assembled an Impact Advisory Group (IAG) “comprised almost exclusively of South Enders, many of whom lived quite distant from the building, and for the most part ignored representatives from Roxbury, in which the property resides, suggesting a racial bias.”
Likewise, “the BPDA only considered property owners within 300 feet of the site overlooks the issue that a 150-foot tower will impact others more distant,” according to the letter, while “renters more immediate to the building site were also not notified, suggesting that property values take primacy over the human health of the neighboring community. As the majority of renters proximate to the Hotel Alexandra are persons of color, the taint of racial bias is suggested.”
The project also includes no on-site parking provisions, and, according to the letter, “without the Massachusetts Legislature authorizing such a restriction, it will certainly be successfully challenged, and the resulting increase in parking demand will be a problem for many already living within the immediate neighborhood, and in particular the several churches in the area.”
Carol Blair, president of Chester Square Neighbors, wrote in an email: “The letter requesting that Mayor Wu initiate a new review for the Alexandra project is clear, and the signatories indicate significant support, including two Chester Square neighbors. So, when the two asked that CSN join their call for a new review process, I took it to CSN’s monthly Executive Committee meeting, which sets the agendas. They found the letter compelling, especially concerning the idea that all voices be heard.”
Lloyd Fillion, who helped write and signed the March 23 letter, told this reporter that the initial motion he put forward to the Chester Square Friends last week wasn’t for the group to sign on to the earlier letter, but instead for the group to write their own letter to Mayor Wu on the matter, which would’ve been in the same spirit of the earlier letter he helped draft. (“I believe the final motion, which was defeated, was for CSN to send a letter requesting a new review,” added Blair, who also served on the IAG.)
During the April 6 meeting of Chester Square Neighbors, Quanda Burrell, who had served on the IAG and also signed the March 23 letter, said she hadn’t received any notices about the project since the proposed change in use and likely wouldn’t have known about the change to the project, if someone had not called it to her attention.
Burrell assumed the plan had been “put on pause” due to the pandemic, she said, and “didn’t know there was a whole new plan, per se.”
“It feels kind of like a betrayal a little bit,” said Burrell, especially since she wanted to continue participating in the process.
“It’s kind of just shock and awe,” said Burrell. “It’s just kind of astonishing to me to see how the city moves in certain ways.”
In contrast, Bud Larievy, a Massachusetts Avenue resident since 1985 and an abutter to the Hotel Alexandra building, said he was “concerned we’re having the conversation again,” especially since “it’s gone through a well-documented process.”
Larievy, who said he’d seen the developer delivering fliers to everyone on his block, as well as to homes on Northampton Street, added, “I’m an abutter directly, and I know we were all informed with fliers when anything was going on.”
Donald Ward, executive director of the Tenants’ Development Group, a nonprofit property management and development organization, said although a member of his group had signed the March 23 letter, “that’s not our request, and I’m not sure what a review would get us.”
The developer also has been “very forthcoming” with the Tenants’ Development Group, as the most immediate abutter to the Hotel Alexandra, including having several meetings with them, said Ward.
“We’re trying to figure out what we’d get from prolonging this process,” added Ward.
Will Krause said he was “troubled” with the Chester Square Neighbors putting forward a motion that seems “hastily constructed and meant to delay something.”
Krause added that he doesn’t believe “an unconstructed motion can be voted on,” and that he doesn’t know “if this is an appropriate way to go about business as a neighborhood association.”
After Blair rejected the developer’s offer to make a comprehensive presentation to the group ahead of their scheduled April 26 ZBA hearing, Attorney LaCasse said, “[This] was a pre-determined outcome. Your motion was drafted in advance. I have never participated in such a one-sided meeting in my 33 years of practicing law. It’s a disgrace.”
Other Real-Estate Projects
Regarding an existing deck and stairs at the rear of a home at 541 Massachusetts Ave., Carol Blair said the Chester Square Neighbors had approved plans for the project “a couple of years ago, but what’s built out there doesn’t look like the plans.”
Blair said after visiting the city’s Inspectional Services Department, she was unable to find any plans resembling the existing conditions, although she does have the concept design and the original plans approved by Chester Square Neighbors.
The applicant, John Burns, said the initial plans for the project were approved by the ISD before the process with the Boston Landmarks Commission started.
“They didn’t love the metal railings and wanted something more historic, so we transitioned to what’s here now,” said Burns, adding that it was meant to look like an historic deck from the 1930s.
The door leading out to the deck resembles a window, said Burns, while the existing window was kept in place. An egress off the stairs, which is required for fire safety, could only be installed in its current location, he added.
In an effort to obscure views of the egress, it was constructed from the same metal as the wrought-iron railings and built behind a “tall and opaque” brick wall, said Burns.
“Basically, it’s a code requirement for safety, and that’s what we’re left with,” said Burns.
Blair asked Burns to provide the group with “a tracking of the progression of the plans from one stage to the next with the date and who approved it, so we can see how things change and how the system might work better.”
In another matter, the group discussed the current status of plans to redevelop the Ebenezer Baptist Church building at 157 West Springfield St.
The developer was expected to defer appearing at the April 5 ZBA hearing, after their meeting with abutters and Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson “concluded the project would harm the neighborhood,” according to Chester Square Neighbors.
Valerie Fletcher, who lives next door to the former church, said the building’s one bidder intended to convert it into nine-market rate apartments, but that plan was later opposed by the city’s Board of Appeal.
“Our hope is that we can secure something that looks like it has more community benefits [rather than] another Black church that becomes luxury condos,” said Fletcher.
If the city ultimately rejects the would-be developer’s appeal, the building would then go back on the market for its previous asking price of $4.7 million, said Fletcher, and stakeholders could “take a concerted effort to assess the future uses for the building that benefit the community and leave the church whole.”
Fletcher added, “It’s clear that the church would need to sell the building to do this.”
While she said it seems as though the process with the current developer has reached its conclusion, Fletcher added she would like to see affordable housing in the building, with units similar in size to assisted-living accommodations.
“We believe it’s doable,” said Fletcher. “We’ve watched so much of this neighborhood broken apart by market-rate conversion that we just wanted to toe the line on this one.”
On the subject of trees
Michelle Laboy said prior to the pandemic, she and Joshua Fiedler had worked on a tree inventory of the two pieces of Chester Square’s park, which led to a discussion about connecting with the arborist from the city’s Parks Department on replacing trees that have been lost over time for a variety of different reasons. (Laboy and Fiedler’s work didn’t include street-trees or empty street pits, however.)
Around this time, a “really beautiful” Maple Tree had been lost in a storm, said Laboy, and now, all of the remaining large-canopy trees are Oaks.
This could “present vulnerability ecologically,” she said, because if a single Oak tree “suffers from illness, they could all get decimated at once.”
Laboy said there are spaces for three large-canopy trees, adding that, “in the future, we could have more variety of taller trees.”
The smaller tress haven’t been inventoried or identified yet, she said, although they are more varied than the large-canopy trees.
“There are spots for the smaller trees, but right now we’re focused on the taller trees,” said Laboy.
Since she and Fiedler completed their tree inventory, the effort has stalled, she said, due to a variety of reasons, such as the pandemic, as well as “some turnover at the Parks Department,” which might have included a change in the city’s arborist.
Laboy said she attempted to set up an appointment with the city’s arborist on three occasions – all to no avail.
“This conversation goes nowhere,” she added. “You can only follow up so many times before you get frustrated.”
Due to other commitments, Laboy and Fidler are no longer up to leading the tree effort, she said, so now they’re hoping to find someone else to help out with this task.
Alma Smith said she’d be “happy to work with someone else because [she] think it’s a really important issue,” but she’s not sure if she wants to do it “singlehandedly.”
Laboy thanked Smith for her offer and said she’d be in touch with her to discuss the matter further when Laboy’s schedule permits.
Carol Blair asked Laboy and Alma to let her know when to put trees back on the agenda for a future Chester Square Neighbors meeting.
Meanwhile, Laboy encouraged neighbors to water street-trees for the first year or two “until they can get established,” she said, since the city doesn’t regularly water the trees it plants.
“Any water would help, to be honest, if it makes it to the ground,” said Laboy.