SELDC Votes to Approve Tremont St. Redesign, Discuss on 566 Columbus Ave.

The South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) met virtually via Zoom on May 5, where two major design projects were heard and residents were frustrated that the meeting went until midnight, after beginning at 5:30

The Tremont St. design project was first on the docket and was subject to a lengthy discussion. The proposed new building at 566 Columbus Ave., the current site of the Harriet Tubman House, was last on the docket and the presentation did not begin until nearly 10:00pm and had several community members questioning the South End Landmarks process and general community process surrounding this project, while others praised the Commission and expressed their support.

Tremont St. Design Project

John Monacelli of the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) presented the proposal for the design project on Tremont St., which includes modifying the layout of the street and intersection, construct raised crossings, built islands, and raised bus stop platforms, and to relocate some of the utilities.

Monacelli began by saying that this project would not entail making changes to the intersections at either end of the street, and this project is happening because it was identified as a corridor in the GoBoston2030 plan as one to be redesigned as a Complete Street.

Additionally, the street as it is currently designed has many multiple threat crash intersections, where there are two lanes of traffic and a lack of traffic control, so if a pedestrian is trying to cross at a crosswalk through two lanes of traffic, the person often cannot be seen by the car in the second lane, which is a public safety threat.

Monacelli explained that the BTD held several public meetings beginning in the fall of 2017 to engage the public in this process, and also met with businesses on the street to get their feedback. BTD has also been working with the City’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities, the Department of Public Works, the MBTA, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission on this project.

He said that the proposed changes include lane and dimension allocation, signal timing and phasing, relocating bus stops, crosswalk improvements, and curbside uses and regulations. Adequate turning lanes and time at signalized intersections to manage traffic, best practice tools for pedestrian safety, and dimensional requirements for Boston Fire Department vehicles are also “essential design elements,” he said.

Monacelli went through each block of the street in the South End, explaining which changes will be made where, but the general built elements that will be added throughout the street include pedestrian crossing islands, raised crosswalks on side streets at unsignalized intersections, bus boarding islands, paths to sidewalks for accessible parking spaces, and a protected parking bike lane so bikes are not traveling right next to moving cars.

“Raised crosswalks keep you out of the slush and puddles, and will be lined up with how people want to cross the street,” Monacelli said. The crosswalks would be raised six inches to meet the sidewalk.

At corners, pedestrian crossing islands will be placed between the bike lane and the travel lane to improve pedestrian visibility and manage the speed of turning vehicles.

BTD proposed pre-cast concrete curbs along the parking lane that are pinned in place and “more permanent than flex posts,,” but the Commission said they would much rather see granite used than pre-cast concrete.

“Aside from the aesthetics of the pre-cast concrete being added into the district, I think i’ts a real problem when snowplows start to knock pre-cast over,” Amodeo said. “I’m worried about having a degraded version of pre-cast concrete in the district.”

Someone made a public comment agreeing with this, saying granite is better for both “aesthetics and durability.”

The bus stop at Berkeley St. would be relocated “to the far side so it’s in front of the bicycle shop,” Monacelli said, and the BlueBikes station would be moved farther away from the curb line. Concrete would be poured where needed for accessibility, but some brick would be left.

Commissioner John Amodeo did not agree with the removal of so much brick, and he suggested that they could find a way to “improve the presentation of the brick without sacrificing the goals of the project or accessibility. I think we could achieve all objectives there.”

Commissioner John Freeman also said that he is “concerned with leftover slices of brick,” but “I think it all looks great.”

Commissioner Catherine Hunt said that “brick does not preclude accessibility,” and that she “appreciates” the safety improvements proposed in this project.

Amodeo also said he would like the pedestrian islands to be brick. “There’s no reason for those…islands to be concrete when we have a historic district that we’re talking about,” he said.

“It’s important that the nuances get addressed,” he continued. He said a compromise that the Commission has made in the past is to allow wire cut brick on concrete or asphalt setting beds to better allow for universal access, even though that method is not traditional for the South End.

“I would like to see that we not expand the concrete beyond the areas absolutely necessary for safe pedestrian areas,” Amodeo said.

Ken Kruckemeyer, who said he worked on the design of the street in the 1970s, thanked the Commission for solving some fo the problems they were not able to back then. He said this new design is “better for bikers, pedestrians, and ultimately for automobiles as well.”

Charless Denison also agreed that this project is an improvement to Tremont St.

The Commission voted to approve this project in concept, but required brick to be used in the unoccupied islands, and remanded the discussion of materials and the use of granite curbs to a subcommittee to be discussed further with John Amodeo and Catherine Hunt.

The full presentation with areas for each proposed change can be found on the May 5 South End Landmark District Commission public notice page on the City’s website.

566 Columbus Ave.

The project at 566 Columbus Ave. started several hours into the hearing, and nearing 11:00, almost 60 participants were still tuned into the Zoom call.

David Goldman of New Boston Ventures said that they have met with the Commission twice already regarding this project, once on advisory review, and one other time with this current proposal.

“I think we have a much better project now because of your input and our work with the staff,” he said.

Though use of buildings is not in the purview of the SLEDC, Goldman explained that “without this project moving forward, [United South End Settlements (USES)] stands to face financial disaster.” USES currently owns the building at 566 Columbus Ave. and is under an agreement with New Boston Ventures, and has said that it needs to sell the building in order to continue operating.

“The whole reason we’re here today, is like other non-profits they’re in a situation where this is their lifeline,” Goldman said of USES. “It’s important that this move forward so they can continue” serving families in the South End and Lower Roxbury. 

“We are looking at this purely as a building in the South End and how it affects and responds to the South end as an architectural historical district,” Commissioner John Freeman said.

January 7 was the last time the SELDC discussed this project, architect Jonathan Garland said.  The proposed building is six stories, and features a nonprofit commercial space as well as an “express cafe” on the ground level, with residential units on the other floors. He said that they are planning on using the existing curb cut for garage access, as well are looking to place the residential lobby mid-block along Columbus Ave.

The existing surface parking lot will be repurposed with building space. A large portion of Garland’s presentation was going through precedents in the district that he has pulled design elements from for the design of this new building.

Garland also went through a long list of comments made by the SELDC at its January 7 hearing, including that the Commission felt the design was “monolithic,” they wanted to see more historic photographs of the area prior to the Tubman House, the design team should take a look at transitions with abutting buildings, and the need for further refining of building details, among other things.

The previous design included a lot of fiber cement, but now has more red brick, “which is more compatible with the South End,” Garland said. The brick stops at four stories and transfers to a double height mansard roof with bronze-toned metal that will come pre-sculpted to create shadow and interest on the building.

The garage doors “are intended to look like carriage doors,” Garland said.

The Commission allowed the public to comment on the project before it made its own comments. Commissioner John Amodeo is the landscape architect for the project, so he had to recuse himself from the hearing, leaving Commissioners John Freeman, Diana Parcon, Peter Sanborn, and Catherine Hunt to comment on the proposal.

Several members of the community said they were disappointed in the Landmarks hearing process, one saying that the evening meetings are “preventing many people from participating.”

Commissioner Hunt replied that “these hearings are scheduled after work hours because Commissioners have full time jobs.” 

Joseph Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission, added, “we do have an annual calendar of public hearings, and we’re doing our best using Zoom to keep the applications on schedule…”

A community member asked why the largest building is “always the last thing on your agenda,” and “this is not the first meeting on this building that has gone past 11pm.” He added that he “appreciates the changes that have been made” and that he feels the design team has addressed previous issues with the design.

Cornish said that they typically try to put smaller projects that will take less time at the beginning, and leave larger projects for last.

“We have done it several ways over the years,” Commissioner John Freeman said. “None of it is perfect; there’s always somebody who cant make a hearing or can’t stay up late. We do the best we can to get the public to comment. We took comments from the public first as a courtesy to you to not have to wait any longer.”

While the project has a lot of support in the neighborhood, several people expressed concern both with the design and with the public comment process. Some said this was the first opportunity they had been able to make comments, while others said there had been “quite a bit” of input allowed from the community throughout the process.

“No one spoke with me and I live across the street from the project,” Tori Reilly said via the Zoom chat function. “I’m not predisposed to like this because you are taking my entire view from my windows and roof. All I see will [be] the utilities on the roof.”

Garland said that there will not be “any kind of mechanical cooling tower or large roof structure that you can see from any vantage point.”

“This is a big improvement over the prior design, but I think it needs much improvement,” Charles Denison wrote. “Strangely, the corners of the building feel weak because there is less brick and more dark metal, especially at Mass Ave and Columbus Ave. Additionally, the cornice of the building feels weak and unfinished compared to other buildings.” He added that the two-story mansard “doesn’t feel right” on the West Springfield Street side of the building. 

Silvia Buonamici said, “As a South End resident, I am in support of the architectural design of the proposed 566 Columbus development. The proposed development fits greatly within the South End and will have a great influence of the cross between Mass Ave and Columbus and a positive impact on the community. I strongly urge the Board to approve on its merits.”

Ken Kruckemeyer, who is on the board of USES, expressed his support for the project, saying that he’d much rather have a building in place of the existing surface parking lot.

“We have a lot of comments here and it was excellent to hear everyone’s input who have waited so long,” Commissioner Catherine Hunt said. It was nearing 11:45pm after the public comment period was over, and the Commissioners felt it was best to continue this discussion to another hearing so as to give it the proper attention it deserves.

Freeman said he was concerned about the West Springfield St. facade, but added that “this is a much better building than the last one we saw.”

 “The architect and developer listened to our comments from the first hearing and we appreciate that they have paid attention, but there’s a long way to go here,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t seem fair to have to do this at midnight, so I would hope we could continue and folks who have waited would go along with that.”

The SLEDC already has a backlog of applications and has two more hearings scheduled for May to try and catch up. Commissioner Diana Parcon suggested that the SELDC have a separate hearing just for this project in order to address all comments and concerns and “make sure we’re doing this in a fair and equitable manner,” she said.

David Goldman stressed the need for this project to move forward quickly, but Commissioner Peter Sanborn said that Landmarks operates independently of any outside issues with use of the building. “I think it’s pretty clear that we feel this is not ready to go to subcommittee yet,” he said.

“There are a few more details we have to work through,” Parcon said. “We can’t just rush and make a decision tonight. We have to meet again.”

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