ZBA Denies Roof Deck for Beacon Street Fraternity House

The Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) on Dec. 17 denied without prejudice the construction of a roof deck on the top of a one-story garage at the back of 416 Beacon St., which operates as an MIT fraternity house. The proposal was before the ZBA because it is within the Groundwater Conservation Overlay District (GCOD), and is an extension of a nonconforming use in the area. There is currently another roof deck on the property.

Edrick vanBeuzekom of EvB Design said that the fraternity house has been in that location since the early 1950s, and they are planning on doing “major renovations” that include making accessibility upgrades, as well as moving social rooms to the basement level and adding insulation to help with noise complaints.

He also proposed a roof deck on top of a one story garage at the rear of the building which would “provide an access alternative to an existing rood deck which is on top of the house,” vanBeuzekom said. He added that this proposal had been previously approved by the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board.

The project does not call for any increase in capacity for the building, it will actually be reduced from 60 to 39 beds, according to the proponents. 

A retired engineer representing the owners of 416 Beacon St. said that this project is “motivated by the fact that our back wall is cracked and we had to do work on it,” he said. “In the process of that, we’re making a major renovation to the building to make ourselves more compatible from a neighbor point of view” and make it ADA compliant.

He said that historical character of the building would be maintained with this proposal as well, as alternatives to the accessible deck included either constructing an indoor elevator to the existing roof deck with a headhouse, or constructing an exterior elevator that would limit accessibility into the house. Neither of these were viable options, the proponent said, so the accessible deck was the only choice.

“Both MIT and our organization have established a set of rules for the use of the roof deck for both the existing and the new,” the representative said. The rules include no music from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., no audio/visual equipment allowed on the deck, and no more than four people are allowed on the deck after dark.

“We’ve had these procedures in place for our current roof deck since 2012,” he said, adding that the rules were developed along with the neighbors. “Since 2012, we’ve had no complaints about noise associated with them and so we think these rules are such that they will mitigate noise,” he said. The roof deck will face Storrow Drive, which he said also already has 50 to 70 decibels of ambient noise.

The rules are enforced by the alumni house corporation through a combinations of fines and loss of use privileges, and the neighbors are able to contact to the alumni association anytime they have complaints.

The proposed deck would also include a gas grill, which would have a hard piped gas system. Currently, there is a grill in the front yard of the building, but the proponents hope that by moving it to the back, it will alleviate any issues that may have been caused by people gathering in front of the property.

Several neighbors were in support of the project, saying that they believe the brothers of the fraternity are good neighbors and they have worked alongside the neighbors in solving issues. A few said they were happy to see that the social rooms would be moved to the basement with more insulation, as that will help with some of the noise concerns that other neighbors have had.

Howard Purcell. President and CEO of New England College of Optometry, which is an abutter to the west of 416 Beacon, said that “we have been communicated with, there has been engagement at every level, and I’ve been incredibly impressed…”

Neighbor Douglas Reeves also supported the project. “As a neighbor, I appreciate retaining the structural integrity and the architectural integrity of the property while still making essential renovations to keep it in good shape,” he said. He added that he appreciated the addition of ADA compliance as well.

The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services also went on the record in support, and said that the proponents have met with the neighbors, including the direct abutters, in a community process and the Mayor’s Office believes that having an ADA compliant design is good, as well as moving outdoor activities to the rear.

Not all neighbors are pleased with this idea, however. Elliott Laffer of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay said he was very against the construction of the roof deck.

“Normally when I come here, I speak in non-opposition to projects because we try very hard to reach agreements with people,” he said. “Sometimes there are issues of principle that we think that we can’t reach an agreement upon and this is one of those times.”

“We’re not speaking in opposition to the brothers at the fraternity,” he continued. “I think that they’ve generally been very good neighbors and they’re good people.”

He said that when it comes to the deck, though, “there are thousands of us who live in the Back Bay without decks and that hasn’t been a tremendous detriment to our ability to live there.”

He said the expansion of the deck would be a bad thing, because educational buildings are no longer allowed in the Back Bay, and “as far as we know, none of the other fraternities have roof decks so that doesn’t seem to be a detriment.”

“We’re asking you to not allow the expansion of this deck that wouldn’t have been allowed any other way,” Laffer continued. “We are very opposed to the addition of this deck.”

Sue Prindle, Chair of NABB’s Architectural Committee, said that the committee had met with the proponents in September as well as a couple of times since, hoping to work something out for the deck. “At this point, we are supportive of their general renovation but not of the deck as such,” she said.

“I think that despite everyone’s good intentions, there will be an adverse effect to the abutters,” Prindle added. She also said that there is a “precedent issue” with the allowance of an extension of a nonconforming use for the other educational buildings in the neighborhood.

“There are probably 50 grandfathered educational buildings in the Back Bay who are watching with interest to see if the board will allow an expansion of a nonconforming use,” she said.

Jason Post, a neighbor next door at 414 Beacon St., said that “while the fraternity members are all pretty nice, every Friday and Saturday night I can hear the music in my bedroom, in our living room, I’d say once every month and a half, my wife or I have to text them asking them to turn down their music.” He said the brothers are “good” about cooperating with these requests, but he doesn’t think he should even have to ask in the first place.

He added that he does not have a problem with the roof deck if four people are on it, but he doesn’t believe that only four people would be on it at one time after dark.

The representative to the owners of 416 Beacon. St. said that the gas for the grill would be turned off after 9 p.m. and the design for the social rooms that was proposed would alleviate noise from inside the house.

“When you see students spilling over to the sidewalk, it does change the quality of life for the residents,” said ZBA Chair Christine Araujo. She wondered how the activity is really monitored.

The ZBA wanted to know if there were any other security measures besides cameras on the property. They were told that a third party company is hired for functions at the house which checks occupancy. “The reason we’re doing all these renovations is to clean up some of these things that people had issues with previously,” the team said.

After hearing from everyone and weighing the options, the ZBA ultimately decided to deny the deck without prejudice. The team is allowed to come back within a year with a different proposal; Araujo suggested they might explore a smaller deck.

“You heard our concerns,” Araujo said, “and you can come back within a year and figure something out.”

The ZBA did approve the construction of a rear deck off of the kitchen in Unit 3 of 48 Union Park in the South End. The deck was not controversial, as it matches other decks in the South End and abutters did not have concerns.

Also approved was a proposal at 135 Myrtle St. to install a roof deck that would be accessed from an existing head-house. Faisa Sharif of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services called it a “modest proposal,” and there were no issues with it as the head-house is existing.

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