The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) voted at their Sept. 11 hearing to accept the draft study report for the Citgo sign. There was no public comment taken at this hearing regarding the draft, but there will be time at a future meeting for public comment once the document is made available to the public.
“We look forward to a public presentation” regarding this study report, said BLC Chair Lynn Smiledge.
Next on the agenda at the hearing was a Demolition Delay hearing for the buildings at 533, 535-9, 541 Commonwealth Ave. and 650, 652-4, 656 Beacon St. These buildings are right next to the one in which the Citgo sign sits, so they are prominent fixtures in Kenmore Square.
As per the Demolition Delay process, the Commission was required to first review the community meeting process to decide whether or not it is adequate. Todd Satter of the BLC staff said that a community meeting was helf on Aug. 29 in the Kenmore Classroom Building, and that the applicant submitted all of the required community meeting documentation.
There are six buildings proposed for demolition. The one at 541 Commonwealth Ave., known as the West Gate building, was designed by architect Arthur Vinal and was a major talking point among the commissioners. According to Geoffrey Melhuish, senior consultant at Epsilon Associates, the building has undergone some alterations on the curved front with the addition of a storefront entry that was added in the mid-20th century. He said that water intrusion has “created havoc” on the fifth and sixth floors.
Melhuish said these units have been vacant for over 40 years. Commissioner John Freeman said that Melhuish has not provided sufficient evidence that the buildings are not in good shape, and Melhuish responded by saying that he did not have any photos of the damage with him at the time.
Commissioner Diana Parcon asked Melhuish if the buildings are holding up structurally, to which he responded, “with limitations, yeah.”
Pam Beale owns a business in one of the buildings, and she said that there are plumbing problems and bricks are falling off the facade. It is “really really difficult to occupy at this time,” she said.
There’s no reason why they should ever have gotten to this condition,” said Commissioner Susan Goganian. The buildings have been neglected for years.
Several people spoke out about the condition and the significance of these buildings. Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said that they requested a tour of the West ate building, and said there was plaster damage, holes in the walls, and bowing floors. He said the buildings would require a lot of work to bring back, but it could definitely be done. He said whether or not it makes sense for the proponent or the community to restore them is what needs to be decided.
Derek Rubinoff, a Boston architect, said that Arthur Vinal has completed a number of projects around Boston, as well as in the greater New England area and believes that he has regional significance. “The building itself is beautiful,” he said, referring to 541 Commonwealth Ave. “It also acts as a gateway to the square— if you’re coming from the west approaching the square, you see the side street elevation very very prominently.”
“We don’t believe the building is replaceable in its beauty and its significance,” he said.
Community member Alison Pultinas said that she has been researching the history of the building, and said that 541 Commonwealth Ave. is the “most prominent in the square.”
“The more variety that you can keep in the square the more value you are giving to the city,” she said. “Historic architecture is what people come to Boston for.
At this point in the process, the Commission voted that it would be preferable that the existing structures be “preserved or rehabilitated rather than demolished.”
Then the Commission heard Related Beal’s plans for alternatives to demolition. Melhuish said that the original intention was to restore and keep the buildings, and they would have to do a full gut job to make it work. He said that they also looked into keeping the facade, but it’s a difficult one to keep with the curvature. The parting walls would have to come down and he said they would face the challenge of putting in stairwells and elevators to code, and the floors don’t align with either building on either side.
Related Beal then presented their proposals for new buildings should they be demolished. Alex Provost from Related Beal said they would try to maintain the three bay structure with the Beacon Street Building, as well as keep the six-story cornice line. Provost said they are continuing the design process with the Boston Civic Design Commission, as they “want to attract that 21st century office tenant.”
“Kenmore Square is as urban as it gets to me,” Goganian said. But “neither of these look urban to me; they look suburban.” The design for the building on Beacon Street is a glass facade with the top floor set back 8 feet.
“It’s not an Apple Store or a Google headquarters,” said Commissioner Christopher Hart. Commissioner David Berarducci said that he likes the idea of a modern infill, but he doesn’t like this current proposal.
Derek Rubinoff said that he wants to commend Related Beal for the “great job” they’ve done with other buildings in the city, but he would like to see the demolition delay imposed to give Related Beal sufficient time to make a “really fantastic architectural statement” and find an innovative way to incorporate 541 Commonwealth Ave. into the new buildings.
Alison Frazee, director of advocacy at the Boston Preservation Alliance, said that there are a lot of new buildings going up in the Kenmore area right now—“there’s going to be a lot of new and a lot of change, [and we] need two make sure we’re balancing that with historic character,” she said.
Smiledge said that she thinks there is some creativity that can be applied to this situation and other commissioners agreed that it would be a good idea to hear some other proposals. The Commission ultimately felt it was best to leave the 90-day demolition delay that was invoked earlier in the hearing in place, and come up with some other options for the area.