BVNA Hears New Proposal for Isabella St. Church; Discusses Emerson College’s Testing Protocol and Use of W Hotel

The Bay Village Planning and Licensing Committee met virtually on August 17, where a new proposal was heard for the church at 19 Isabella Street, and representatives from Emerson College spoke to the community about its plans to house students at the W Hotel.

The original proposal for Isabella St., which was presented last year and was supposed to be developed by New Boston Ventures, is no longer on the table as the developer withdrew the plan.

Now, Carlisle Capital is the new developer, and president Bill Binnie and his son Dylan were on hand to answer questions from the committee. The architect for both proposals is Finegold Alexander. Architect Tony Hsiao gave the presentation.

Harry Collings, a development consultant for the developer, said that they are “just beginning the process” with this new proposal, and have not yet filed anything with the Boston Planning and Development Agency or “any other City department.”

Binnie explained that Carlisle Capital is an “award winning” developer, with a “particular focus and expertise in renovating old buildings.”

The proposed residential project at 19 Isabella Street would also include office space for his family business, he said, so they have a “particular sensitivity in making sure it looks right.”

 This proposal includes 10 fewer units and is one story shorter than the previous proposal, Binnie said.

“Our goal is to make a smaller, less obtrusive project” than what was previously presented, he added.

Architect Tony Hsiao said that the “existing building has a very strong, stately presence in the neighborhood. We want to be respectful of the existing historic fabric.” He said that the team has done additional background research on the church, and discovered that the steps leading up to the front entrance are not original.

Hsiao said that they would like to remove the steps and bring the building entry down to the ground, which would allow for accessible access to the building.

There would also be restoration work on the facade including preserving, restoring, and enlarging some of the windows to allow for more natural light. He also proposed the addition of windows on the alley side of the building to bring in even more daylight.

He then talked about the proposed addition to the back of the church, which would be for the residential units as well as 8,000 square feet of office space. The addition is set back “roughly 20 to 35 feet from the front face of the steeple,” Hsiao said. The addition matches “the height of the peak of the church” with a penthouse on top that is pulled away. There would also be a dedicated elevator inside separating the residential use from the office use.

The addition was proposed to be a lighter color masonry type material, which Hsiao said “lightens the current massing.”

The Committee and members of the community who tuned into the meeting seemed to share the same concerns about this proposal: that it’s too similar to the one previously presented.

Bay Village Neighborhood Association (BVNA) president Bethany Patten said that speaking in “broad strokes, it doesn’t look that different.” She added that it “feels a bit big,” and the massing on the back isn’t drastically different from the other proposal that neighbors worked together to try and reduce.

“Looking at the rear, it just looks like a big box,” said BVNA member Gaye Bok.

BVNA member Sarah Herlihy said she does like the proposed glass roof on the back as well as the design on the front of the church, and she said she “appreciates” the “effort to get light into the structure.”

She agreed with Patten that “there’s been a lot of discussion about the massing in the back. It’s still a problem that we need to work really hard and get creative about.” She added that “this feels very familiar and something we already said no to.”

Binnie said that space and volume from the residential units is needed to “justify” restoring the church and “bringing the facades back to a world class level.”

He continued, “this is just about a break even situation for us to do as a developer…I don’t think the massing would look out of place” compared to other buildings in the area,” he said.

Resident John Shope said that “I don’t want to say that we should just accept anything that any developer proposes,” but “what we have here is something that…is going to be owner occupied and very positive for the neighborhood.” He added that “what may happen” on the adjacent lot should also be considered, citing rising crime rates and a potential drop in values for urban real estate. “We need to be cognizant of the changing economic situation,” he said. “We need to take into account that a very experienced developer did take a pass when they were told something that was a little bigger than this wasn’t going to be approved.”

Herlihy said that the BVNA has been “accepting of height” after a proper design review process that includes neighbors, and cited the Motor Mart garage project as an example. She also said that she isn’t “worried about this becoming a bad use,” in response to Shope’s comment.

“We are very open to working with the developers,” she said. “It is a challenge. I hope this is the start of a process.”

Binnie insisted that he doesn’t “know how to lessen the massing,” and said he “doesn’t want to fight with the neighbors.” He said that the building has asbestos and a failing roof that costs “three times 10 million dollars” to address and restore. He said that colors can change for the proposed materials on the facade, but “we can’t really change the fact that we need a box,” he said. “It’s incredibly expensive, but we want it to be beautiful when it’s done.”

He called the meeting “disappointing,” adding that “we have capital, we have commitment to the community.” He continued, I’m not sure, given your comments, how much room there is for us to change things or fire the architect and hire another guy.”

Herlihy responded by saying, “I think these comments are a little disappointing to us.” The group wants the next steps to be involving a subcommittee to work with the project team on refining a design that works for all.

Emerson College Use of W Hotel and Testing Protocol

Peggy Ings, Vice President of Government and Community Relations at Emerson College, and Mary Higgins, Director of Community Relations, attended the virtual meeting on Monday night to update the community on the college’s plans to bring students back to campus safely.

Ings said the college has partnered with the W Boston Hotel to provide 216 rooms to returning students. She said that nine of the 11 floors at the hotel will be occupied by students in an effort to socially distance students, and because the Paramount residence hall will be a dedicated quarantine and isolation location.

“Students cannot come on campus without a test,” Ings said. “Positive students will be moved to a room at the Paramount,” though she added that if it is possible for that student to go home with their family, that would be preferable. “It can’t always happen, though,” she said.

Students who test positive will have their ID temporarily deactivated so they cannot leave their rooms. No visitors are permitted in any of the college’s residence halls this semester, she added.

The W will have eight Resident Assistants and one full-time Resident Director as well, she added.

“Students sign an agreement to be part of a community that is going to comply with the rules and regulations,” Ing said. “People will not stay at the campus if they do not comply.”

Before coming onto campus, students are tested at Tufts Medical Center and “those tests are repeated four days later,” and then again the following week, she said.

Higgins explained the move-in process for the W Hotel, which will take place on August 25 and August 26, with approximately 100 students moving in each day. Some parking spaces on Warrenton St. will be utilized for the move-in process. She said that it “should go very smoothly because it’s such a low number of students.”

Sarah Herlihy said that “Emerson has been a good neighbor to the neighborhood,” and communication will be key as everyone navigates these uncharted waters. She asked what the plan would be should there be a cluster of cases on campus.

Ings said that the college is “fully prepared if that happens,” with the 260 bed Paramount residence hall available for quarantine and isolation purposes for students who test positive or have been exposed to the virus. She said that they hope to not use more than the first two floors for those who test positive, but are prepared with more space if need be.

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