The controversial building proposed for the empty lot at 149-155 Newbury St. has gone through several iterations now, but is still only slightly more popular with Back Bay residents. The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) on Feb. 12 voted to move this project to a subcommittee, which will work with the applicants on a design that both respects the historic fabric of the neighborhood and satisfies the wants and needs of neighbors.
The proposed mixed use retail/office building, called “The Aubry,” has undergone two advisory reviews at the BBAC so far and also gone before the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay’s (NABB) Architecture Committee several times.
The architects for the project, CBT Architects, said they talked with NABB the previous week and made some design changes after that. Major issues that many neighbors had with previous designs was the immense amount of glass proposed for the facade of the building, especially the chamfered corner, as well as the proposed rooftop mechanical equipment.
At the hearing last Wednesday, the team proposed much more brick for the building, with glass as in inset between the bays. “We augmented the materiality after receiving feedback about a lot of the glass,” one of the architects said. “The glass serves more as a dividing feature than a unifying feature.”
Additionally, the window bays were updated, creating more of a mullion feel than there was before, and “the mass of the brick actually feels more like a brick building than the previous building in January,” he said. Additionally, there will be improvements to the alley side of the building, moving the office entry to the back and creating an enclosure for the trash. The team said that in the best case scenario, the retail component will stretch across the entire front of the facade.
The chamfered corner was also not particularly popular with the Commission, however, “you’ve made substantial improvements from the previous designs,” said Commissioner Robert Weintraub.
Several neighbors submitted comment letters to the BBAC in opposition of the project, siting the A frame glass corner as an issue, saying the design still needs some work. One commenter said that this is a :one time opportunity to have a potentially award-winning building,” as there are not many opportunities to build from the ground up on Newbury Street.
The hearing was packed with concerned neighbors who wanted to express their concerns with the building as it’s proposed now.
Several residents of the Vendome, the abutting condominium building, had concerns about the design of the building. “I’ve attended all these meetings; l am so dismayed that people in the Vendome are constantly not being considered,” one said, adding that she wants the architects to make the building “more decent to look at.”
Commissioner Iphigenia Demetriades said that the alley between the Vendome and this proposed building is “not much different from other alleys where people look at stuff like this,” she said. “The Vendome is not the most beautiful building itself.”
Sue Prindle of NABB said that the NABB Architecture Committee “appreciates” the designs, but believes that the team has “simply refined” the previous proposals, and this project “deserves careful review and consideration.” She said that NABB supports this project moving to a subcommittee of the BBAC, and suggested that alternative designs for the facade be explored, especially the reduction of the amount of clear glass as glare is a concern. “The building should look like it’s meant to last as long as its neighbors,” Prindle said.
She added that NABB believes the metal proposed for the building looks “temporary” and “dark,” and that the views from the Vendome should be respected and a shadow and noise impact study should be done. Additionally, they would like to see the relocation and reduction of the rooftop mechanical equipment.
A resident on Dartmouth St., who said his residents is catty-corner to the proposed building. “My bedroom looks right out on it,” he said. He added that he wants the team to “take the time to do this the right way.” He also believes that the “contentious” A-frame issue will work itself out in time. “I think everything’s moving in the right direction,” he said.
Jim Berkman, also of the NABB Architecture Committee, said, “I think we have seen a real evolution,” but said that the amount of glass and the quality of the materials are what really needs to be reviewed as far as the design goes.
“This was always going to be a difficult building because it’s very unusual to have an empty lot,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “Coming up with something new is always going to be difficult.” Mainzer-Cohen said when it comes to a balance of glass and brick, glass is preferred for a retail environment for better viewing of the merchandise.
“I have been really happy with all the changes in this building,” she told the Commission.” I urge you to work with the team to approve something that works within the neighborhood, but also at the end of the day works with the uses they [the development team] need.”
Several other neighbors echoed concerns about the A-frame corner and the amount of glass used.
Tom High from backbayhouses.org said that he “urges” the commission that “it’s the architecture of this building that has to control its use. Years from now, the design of the building is what matters—relying on the tenants is not enough.”
Emily Brown from City Councilor Kenzie Bok’s office said that the Councilor supports the creation of the subcommittee, and it’s “important that we continue to engage the community.” Brown also said that sustainability and efficiency is a priority for the Councilor.
The Commission, after deciding that more information and work was needed, neither denied or approved this application at the February 12 hearing, but rather moved it to the subcommittee which will eventually come to a decision that they will bring back to the full Commission for a vote.
The design tam said they embrace the idea of a subcommittee and they look forward to working with the Commission and the community on a design that works best for everyone. The subcommittee meetings will be open to the public and notices will be posted on the City of Boston website.