After a very lengthy process, the South End Landmark District Commission (SELDC) approved the proposed building at 566 Columbus Ave at a special hearing on July 30.
The hearing drew in more than 100 participants to the Zoom call, and included many neighbors in support of the project, and some who still had issues or concerns about the proposed mixed use residential building.
The demolition of the existing building at the address, known as the Harriet Tubman House, was approved in 2019. The current building is owned by United South End Settlements (USES), who explained to the community that it must sell the existing building in order to continue providing programs to the community.
Developer New Boston Ventures, along with architect Jonathan Garland of J. Garland Enterprises LLC, have presented several proposals to the SELDC and a subcommittee has worked with the project proponents in hopes of honing the project into something that the community could accept.
“It has been nearly 18 months since we began with the process, and prior to that USES held a lengthy community process when they issued the RFP for this site,” said David Goldman of New Boston Ventures.
While many members of the community support this project, even after the approval, there are still outstanding concerns related to the height and massing of the building (especially on W. Springfield St.), as well as the preservation of the historical aspects of the existing building.
Goldman said that the height on W. Springfield is “tied directly” to the 4,800 square feet of first floor space that will be donated for community and nonprofit use. He said that they are “bound by the [Boston Planning and Development Agency] approval and with the City” to include that space as well as affordable artist live/work units.
“If we lose the pillar on which our ability to do them rests”—which he said is the height—”then the “financial feasibility of the project itself collapses.”
Architect Jonathan Garland presented the latest proposal for the project, including proposed streetscape and public realm improvements, in a mostly recap fashion.
“We have tried our best to respond to each comment thoughtfully,” he said of both Commissioner and public comment from past hearings.
He briefly discussed about some of the facade details, including the brick detailing, the removal of headhouses at the top level of Mass. Ave, and the corner treatment on Columbus Ave. and W. Springfield St.
On the W. Springfield facade, he explained a massing reduction that was made possible both by introducing bowfronts at the base of the building for the three story townhouse section of the building, and explaining that floors four, five, and six will step back three feet at each floor.
“We look at that as a significant improvement in terms of the mitigation,” Garland said.
The bowfronts also create additional green space, which will be heavily planted to deter people from loitering in the area, he added.
“In terms of the planting, we want to send a clear message that this does not have social or physical function,” Garland said.
Garland also said that all headhouses have been eliminated and the elevator is centrally located in the back of the building and would go all the way up to the top of the building.
For the streetscape items, Garland proposed new street trees along the perimeter of the building, as well as brick sidewalks on Mass. Ave., Columbus Ave., and W. Springfield St.
Garland also said the project would comply with the City’s Complete Streets program.
The preservation of the mural outside of the current building was also a topic of discussion, though it is outside of SELDC’s purview since it will not be placed outside in the new building. A mural commission had been formed to discuss the best way to preserve the mural, and photographer Andy Ryan said that he is tasked with photographing the mural so it can be reproduced in many forms once it is removed.
He said the mural, created by late artist Jameel Parker, has been cleaned to bring out the true colors, but in doing so, it has made the varnish reflective which poses some challenges for photography.
He said the hope is to “be able to create a one to one representation of the mural that is as true to the original as possible,” and can be printed out on different materials as well as possibly digitized for a display inside the community space on the ground floor of the new building.
After the presentation, many members of the public weighed in on the design of the building, either during the virtual hearing or in a written letter to the Commission. The Commission let the public speak before Commissioner comments, because so many people tuned into the hearing.
Michael Kelly said he was in “strong support” of the project, as well as of the design team. He thanked the team for their work, said he appreciated the increase in affordable units, and called the project “an attribute to the community.”
Julia Johannsen, Chair of the Board of Directors of USES, said she was in support of the project as well and called the project “beautiful.” She also thanked the development team for being “extremely responsive.”
Former State Representative Byron Rushing also joined the Zoom call to speak in favor of the project as well, stating that he believes the work done by the design team to respond to community concerns was “great” and the changes are “all very appropriate.”
Several others also voiced their support, adding that they’d like to see this project move forward as soon as possible, they believe the project fits well in the neighborhood, and they appreciate the affordable units.
Others were not as supportive of the project, citing concerns about height, density, cultural significance, and more.
Resident Mike Reinders said that this is “not about liking or disliking a building,” but rather about “following standards and criteria.” Reinders has repeatedly expressed concerns about the height of the project, among other things, and he believes it does not fit within the SELDC Standards and Criteria.
Leslie Kulig agrees that the W. Springfield facade is “way too high” and “does violate the Standards and Criteria.” She added that she has been “very disappointed in the process,” as she said that as an abutter, she never received notification of hearings on the matter.
Another resident, identified as Mike P. on Zoom,, said that he feels that “much less” has been asked of this developer than is asked of homeowners who come before the Commission, who do not have the same money to spend that a developer does.
“Just so it’s clear to the public,” Commissioner John Freeman said, “when a project is approved at this phase, that doesn’t mean the Commission steps away from it.” He said there is “continued involvement and continued input on the projects as they move forward.”
Preservation Planner Mary Cirbus said she received a petition with 237 signatures from residents on W. Springfield St. and other areas citing issues with the height and setback on W. Springfield St.
“We take public comment very, very seriously,” Freeman said. “We can;’t do what everybody wants because it’s very different.”
Commissioner David Shepperd, who is new to the Commission and also sat on the subcommittee for this project, had many comments about the proposal, beginning with the fact that he agreed with the residents who think the massing, height, and setbacks are an issue.
He also said “he likes a lot of the things the public have commented on who are in support of the project,” including the “different depths” along the building that make it feel more like rowhouses, which he said “made it feel more like a South End building.”
He added that “I do think that overall, this will be a benefit to the community and to the neighborhood. That said, many of the things we’ve discussed in past meetings really haven’t been adjusted to match the rules that are set out for the Commission in my mind.”
He said the “biggest concern” that remains is the height on W. Springfield St., adding that the newly proposed setbacks and bowfronts are an improvement, but are still not enough.
He added that he doesn’t think a “bookend” building, which was a term used often throughout this Landmarks process, “means that you have an entire block at a 70 foot height.”
He also said he does not believe there is enough green space, nor has the Mass. Ave. facade been discussed enough, as he feels discussion on W. Springfield was a distraction from other aspects of the project.
That being said, he said that “there is a lot of support on this project,” and believes it has “moved in the right direction.”
Commissioner Catherine Hunt cited a recent business meeting of the SELDC where the Standards and Criteria were discussed generally, but no reference to any specific project was made.
“I have been reassured that our understanding of the guidelines is correct and our project is within them,” she said, referring to what was discussed at the meeting.
Commissioner Diana Parcon made no comments about the proposal nor did she ask any questions.
Hunt moved to approve the project as submitted “with the understanding that the applicant will provide details to the Commission during design development…” Additionally, she said that all mockups will also be required to be provided to the Commission so they can view materials being used, and a signage plan will need to be viewed eventually as well. Additionally, nothing on the roof should be visible from a public way as promised by the design team.
Commissioner Shepperd voted against the motion, but Parcon, Hunt, and Freeman voted in favor, so the motion passed.
A separate motion was made to approve the sidewalk and streetscape modifications, which produced the same votes.
“This starts the next phase of the process,” Freeman said. “We review the details, materials; everything that may change. You have a duty to come back to the Commission,” he told the applicants.
Garland expressed his “deep gratitude” to the Commissioners for their input on the project. He called the project a “team effort” and said there is “still some way to go,” but said he is appreciative of the comments and feedback from Commissioners and the public.