By Lauren Bennett and Seth Daniel
‘A’ is not okay for Back Bay neighbors reviewing one unique office building project on a key corner in the Back Bay – the surface parking lot at the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth streets that is one of the few undeveloped sites left in the area.
The project is brought by L3 Capital of Chicago, which purchased the parking lot last summer for $40 million. The project is unique in that it will be one of the first new-construction office buildings developed on Newbury Street in many years – a stretch that is predominately residential and retail-oriented. It is also unique as the proposal is by right, which means that it won’t have the normal public reviews that an Article 80 project would have.
The latest designs for the proposed project, officially located at 149 Newbury St., went before the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) on Jan. 8, where an Advisory Review was held and commissioners provided feedback, but no vote was taken. The project also went before the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB)’s Architecture Committee on Jan. 7, with nearly 50 people in attendance. This is the second iteration of the project that has been presented to the public, and many aren’t impressed.
Many neighbors were shocked by the large amounts of glass, and a corner ‘A’ feature at the entrance that is to represent the buildings name, ‘The Aubrey.’ For a lot of neighbors, the large amounts of glass going up several floors, and the “gaudy” ‘A’ feature lack an elegance that neighbors hoped for on the corner – which is officially known as the Dartmouth Street Mall.
L3 Capital founders in Chicago did not respond to multiple e-mails from the Sun seeking comment on the most recent design issues.
Sue Prindle, Co-Chair of the NABB Architecture Committee, said that the committee’s biggest issues with the latest proposal are the amount of glass on the building, the mechanical equipment on the roof, and the rear facade.
“There’s concern about how the light will affect the surrounding abutters,” Prindle said. She also said that she believes the building “isn’t contextual with Newbury Street. Nobody’s looking for a historic building but I think it needs to fit within the design [of the rest of the street.]”
The glass facade of the building is of utmost concern for NABB and surrounding neighbors.
“Commenters felt that it was jarring and out of scale and did not relate to the rest of the building façade or to other buildings on Newbury Street; that such a heroic entrance should relate better to the interior uses and would work better on a large retail or office space; and that it provided too much exposure to the interior of the building, whose appearance will be difficult to control over time,” the NABB Architecture Committee stated in a letter to the BBAC.
The Committee also expressed concern for light pollution when it came to the glass design, as well as concerns over seeing office furniture and lighting from the street. Though the project proponents did add an element of brick and bronze to this iteration of the design, “the design reads as several disconnected concepts, rather than as a whole,” the letter reads. Additionally, some people felt as though the brick looks “pasted on the facade,” rather than a supporting element of the building.
The new mechanical equipment proposed appears larger, which Prindle said was an issue. Visibility of mechanical equipment is a huge area of concern in the Back Bay, and one that is frequently discussed at length at BBAC hearings.
“We noted that the mechanical space has doubled since the previous presentation,” the comment letter stated. “We would like to see a more detailed study of the roofscape and a sincere attempt to minimize the impact of the mechanicals on the Vendome residents without increasing their visibility from Newbury or Dartmouth streets.”
The Vendome condominiums share the capstone of the block, and would be the closest abutter.
Lastly, the committee wants trash to be stored on the interior of the building, and “urges that the applicant develop a comprehensive plan for the rear facade and the rear-yard area, including the materials to be used, parking delineation, if any, commercial loading area, and interior trash and recycling storage,” the letter read.
“We appreciate the effort made to address the concerns we expressed in December and the progress that has been made on several areas of concern,” the committee stated. “However, our committee feels that the location and the design warrant further serious study.”
Prindle said that the project team has been receptive, and is working with the community, and “we hope they will continue to do so.” She said she looks forward to further conversations with the team, and is confident that they can come together towards a solution that works for everyone.
Ed Deveau, a resident of the abutting Vendome Condominiums for more than 10 years, said that he and other Vendome residents were aware that someday the empty parking lot might change. However, he and many of the other residents are not satisfied with the proposal as it currently stands. Deveau said he enjoys the Vendome and the Back Bay neighborhood, but he’d like to see a proposal that is more contextual with the rest of the area. As a former police officer in charge of improving the quality of life of residents, he is very concerned about this building and how it will affect the residents of the Vendome.
“My concerns are how the new owners have presented and how it really doesn’t seem to fit in,” Deveau said of the building. He agreed with the NABB Architecture Committee that the building design is not compatible with the neighborhood. “It doesn’t seem to be a good neighbor to come in and put in a building like that,” he said.
He noted the proposed seating areas around the building, which he said, “look to me like a skateboard park.” He cited this as a quality-of-life issue and wondered why “[the developers] would present something that attracts something like that” for this area of the neighborhood.
Deveau said there are 65 different owners in the Vendome that face the direction of the proposed building, and there would be “significant change in those views out the windows,” he said. “Most of the owners understand that.”
However, he said that the design of the back of the building is also “poor,” as it has “little to no windows and it looks to me more like a Costco facility than a side of a building in the Back Bay.”
Additionally, Deveau said he is concerned about the developers’ plan to “maximize the building,” and add more mechanical equipment than previously proposed. “I think some of it has to do with the design of the building,” he said, as the all-glass design is probably not the most energy efficient.
“We’re hoping to see them do some changes,” he said of the developers. Deveau said that the increase in size of the fifth floor and the additional mechanical space that was not included in the original design is a “significant step backwards as I see it.”