Located on what’s known as “the block of death,” the buildings at 356, 358, and 260 Newbury St. could be in for a major facelift should a contentious proposal be accepted by the Back Bay Architectural Commission.
The architects previously presented a proposal as an advisory review, and returned before the Commission on Dec. 12 with an official proposal for the buildings. The proposal includes the construction of a penthouse addition and roof decks, along with a restaurant at the dig out on the ground level, open retail at the first floor, and a boutique hotel above, according to Meyer and Meyer Project Manager Adam Gilmore. The hotel is proposed to have 18 units.
The point of contention within the Commission and also the community is the way the buildings will look—Meyer and Meyer is proposing a lot of features made out of glass, including existing doors, as well as some stone elements that would be replaced with cast class to match the existing details. The glass doors on the floor above the ground level would lose their stoops in this design, much to the dismay of many Commissioners and community members.
The project has been compared to a Chanel store in Amsterdam that uses bricks made out of glass. Gilmore said that since the advisory review, the area of glass has been scaled back 40 or 50 percent.
Commissioner David Eisen said he is concerned about the ornate elements being made out of glass. “It looks sort of like my grandmother’s crystal, and I’m sorry to say that’s not really a compliment,” he said. He suggested doing the reverse; making the ornate elements out of materials that are expected for the area but making the “simpler, blockier elements” out of glass.
“I really like the idea of trying to reinvent the 21st century [using] some of the ways the buildings were made in the 19th century, but I’m sort of questioning the choices you’ve made about which materials,” Eisen added.
“I don’t see the elements that we’re replacing as particularly ornate, though, frankly,” Gilmore responded. “Yes, they’re more ornate quote unquote than a block…those are fairly simple; they’re more complex than a block but they’re not ostentatious,” he said.
Commissioner Jerome CooperKing said he thinks it could go “one way or the other,” and said to Eisen, “If I’m hearing you right, you’re afraid it might look cheap.” CooperKing said that he believes the design has the potential for that, but also just the opposite. “It could look like a jewel; it could look like something that is shockingly beautiful,” he said.
BBAC Chair Kathleen Connor said that the project is noticeably different than what was presented in the advisory review, and that it was evident that the glass has been scaled back. “The devil is in the details; I think there are many merchants that would love that exposure from a glass standpoint and that particular part of Newbury Street to have something be so vibrant is a very positive move,” she said.
Much of the hearing about this application was regarding whether or not to have a subcommittee regarding the design. Some Commissioners felt that it was best worked out with the full Commission during a regular hearing, while staff and other Commissioners felt that having a subcommittee would allow the project to be considered thoughtfully and carefully so the renovations can be done in the best way for the community.
“It’s about respecting the old and injecting the new and having that synergy; that is what would make this successful,” Connor said.
CooperKing was concerned with the precedent this might set for the rest of the area, as this much glass is not typical on the historic street. He did, add, however, that he realizes this kind of a project is not affordable for everyone on the street to execute.
Since the stoops on the doors on the floor above the restaurant are proposed to be removed, the doors appear as if they’re floating, which Commissioner Weintraub said looks strange and other Commissioners agreed with. Eisen said this project is “not quite ready for prime time.”
Meg Mainzer-Cohen of the Back Bay Association expressed her support for the proposal. “We want this to be a home run, we want this to be a success,” she said. “This is tremendously expensive and it will draw people just to look at this as it exists.”
Mike Jammen from Urban Meritage owns a few buildings on Newbury Street, and he said that this proposal is “phenomenal.”
Others were not as enthusiastic right off the bat. Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay said that she is concerned with the depth of the restaurant, and would like to see “some kind of balcony or base for the floating doors on the second level.” She also had concerns with the entry point, and thinks it will be difficult for people to decide where the point of entry is. The architects agreed that a canopy over those “floating” doors would be a good solution.
Laurie Thomas from the Garden Club of the Back Bay said that she thinks the project is “cool,” but Newbury Street isn’t the place to do this kind of project.
Tom High from backbayhouses.org contributed his two cents to the subcommittee discussion. “I’m surprised to hear there’s any hesitancy about the process,” he said. “This is an important building. This is an important project and a subcommittee can process it very quickly and come back to the Commission in January with a recommendation.”
After deliberating for a little while, the Commission ultimately decided to continue this application to the January hearing and form a subcommittee prior to that hearing. The subcommittee will work through details with the project proponents and provide provisos at the hearing in January. All commissioners with the exception of Patti Quinn requested to sit on the subcommittee.
After the motion passed, Connor told the architects and the community, “We want to do this the right way.”