The City Council’s Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on Monday, March 20, in in the Iannella Chamber at City Hall to discuss two proposed ordinances – one to extend the current boundaries of the Beacon Hill Historic District, which would also give the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission added enforcement capabilities; and another which would expand the purview of the Bay Village Architectural Commission in that neighborhood.
The home-rule petition for the Beacon Hill Historic District, which was recently refiled after being first filed last May, would enlarge the district to include all of the North Slope via the addition of an approximately 40-foot-wide area running from Charles Circle to Bowdoin Street along Cambridge Street on the Beacon Hill side, which currently isn’t included. (This omission apparently came in response to concerns that including the entire North Slope in the Historic District could impede the city’s plans to accommodate Engine Company 4 and Ladder Company 24, which has since been constructed at 200 Cambridge St.) The docket would also give the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission the specific authority to levy fines for violations of its Enabling Act for the first time.
The ordinance for the Bay Village Historic District would extend the purview of the Bay Village Architectural Commission to review not just building facades directly facing a public way, but also everything visible from a public way, as is now the case in the Beacon Hill Historic District.
Both dockets were co-sponsored by District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok and Council President and District 2 Councilor Ed Flynn. Both Bok and Flynn represent respective parts of Beacon Hill while Flynn also represents Bay Village.
The Bay Village Neighborhood Association has endorsed the proposed Bay Village ordinance, said Councilor Bok, and likewise, the proposed Beacon Hill ordinance has garnered the support of the Beacon Hill Civic Association.
Council President Flynn said the proposed ordinances both intend to “make governance of these neighborhood more streamlined and less confusing” while allowing for further protection of their historic buildings and structures.
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, described the proposed ordinances as “part of a larger effort to make city process clear to residents.” She also lauded Joe Cornish, the Boston Landmarks Commission’s director of design review, who was absent from the hearing, for “doing a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Nicholas Armata, senior preservation planner for the Boston Landmarks Commission and Beacon Hill Architectural Commission staff member, said the Beacon Hill Historic District was first established in 1955, making it the oldest local historic district in the Commonwealth, as well as one of the nation’s oldest historic districts on the National Register.
The district was expanded first in 1958 to include the Flat of the Hill, said Armata, and again in 1963 to include the South Slope. The Granary Burying Ground and Park Street Church were added to the district in 1975, he said.
Expanding the Beacon Hill Historic District to Cambridge Street would help protect such historic structures in the neighborhood as the Puffer’s Building at 214-218 Cambridge St., along with the oldest commercial structures on the street, among other buildings, said Armata.
Though she described the ordinance for Bay Village as “a relatively minor change,” Councilor Bok said on Beacon Hill, her greatest concern is for the brick sidewalks in the historic district on either side of Cambridge Street, especially as the MBTA considers installing a proposed Red-Blue line connector beneath that street.
“The brick sidewalks are an important part of the visual impact of the neighborhood,” said Councilor Bok, “and there are ways to really accommodate accessibility.”
Rev. White-Hammond said from an aesthetic standpoint, she “wants things to happen on both sides of the street.”
And while Rev. White-Hammond said there are currently no plans to change the sidewalks on Cambridge Street, she added that she “wants that conversation to happen cohesively together” with the process for the redesign of Cambridge Street to accommodate the Red-Blue connector. This would allow for the “conversation to happen holistically,” she said.
Council President Flynn, who pointed to the perceived lack of community input regarding the city’s decision to temporarily close Dartmouth between St. James Avenue and Boylston Street to vehicular traffic for 10 days last June for its Connect Copley pilot, said, “If we’re talking about a major renovation on Cambridge Street, residents need to be heard at the beginning [of the process].”
Rev. White-Hammond assured Council President Flynn that Cambridge Street would undergo a “full street design,” and that “the whole street has a mapped-out process that needs to be followed.”
Councilor Bok said that the Red-Blue connector has “just started to appear in the capital budget for the MBTA,” so the project is likely years away from breaking ground. “For me, that would be a major thing and would involve quite a lot of community process,” she added.
Alison Frazee, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Boston’s architectural heritage, said the group supported the two “measures to enhance and protect both of these historic neighborhoods.”
Mark Kiefer, chair of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, as well as former chair and president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board of directors and a 32-year resident of the neighborhood, spoke in favor of the home-rule petition for the Beacon Hill Historic District.
“This is a change that is welcome and, I dare say, overdue,” said Kiefer “It’s fair to say that since the directive [that established the original guidelines for the Beacon Hill Historic District] was created, preservation has evolved to recognize social history, not just architectural history.”
As Kiefer noted, neither the Museum of African American History, nor The Vilna Shul, was originally included in the Beacon Hill Historic District, but both buildings have since been incorporated into its jurisdiction.
Kiefer added that the proposed ordinance for Beacon Hill would also allow the commission to better ensure the “quality of workmanship” of new developments projects, and more importantly, ensure that they “enhance” Cambridge Street.
Moreover, Kiefer spoke in favor of including the sidewalks in the ordinance and also applauded Councilor Bok and Council President Flynn’s recommendation that would allow the commission added means of enforcement.
Meghan Awe, current chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, spoke in support of the home-rule petition, which, she said, would extend the Beacon Hill Historic District to Cambridge Street “to finally [incorporate] all of the North Slope and make the neighborhood whole within the Beacon Hill Historic District.”
Rob Whitney, past chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board and a 35-year resident of the neighborhood, also spoke in favor of the proposed ordnance for the Beacon Hill Historic District and described it as “a great opportunity for the City Council to extend its natural boundary, which is Cambridge Street.”
Furthermore, Whitney described the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission’s process as “the perfect venue if any issues arise with the Red-Blue connector.”
Rev. White-Hammond pointed out that no one with disabilities had spoken at the hearing, and from speaking to members of this community, she has learned that “their characterization…differs from what has been represented here.”
Councilor Bok, who said she “remains in favor of brick sidewalks in this neck of the woods,” pointed to in front of a few properties of Joy Street, where wire-cut brick had been used for the sidewalks in an effort to balance aesthetics and accessibility.
“There is a way to harmonize these two things,” she said.
Regarding the sidewalks on Cambridge Street, Councilor Bok said it ultimately comes down to the resources available. But she added that with the proposed Red-Blue connector, there’s an opportunity to tap state and federal funding for the redesign of Cambridge Street.
In conclusion, Councilor Bok said: “This 40 feet [now omitted from the Beacon Hill Historic District] really bothers me. It just looks goofy if you look at the map. It doesn’t really reflect the reality of what any observer would say is Beacon Hill.”
City Councilor Felix Arroyo, who chairs the Committee on Government Operations, said he would explore implementing both proposed ordinances in partnership with their lead sponsors, Councilor Bok and Council President Flynn.