BVHDC Denies Proposal for Accessible Ramp on Berkeley St.; Wants to See More Options

The Bay Village Historic District Commission (BVHDC) met virtually on December 8, where they discussed a proposal for the building at 119 Berkeley St. to construct a handicapped entry ramp at the front of the building.

The Commission had many concerns with the proposal and ended up denying it without prejudice because they said they would like to see a design that better fits the historic district.

Architect Derek Rubinoff and owner Eric Shinrock were at the hearing to present the proposal. Shinrock said that the building was bought as market rate studio apartments, and operates as such, but the desire is to “move some affordable housing subsidies to the building” to create all affordable units. To create affordable units, the building must be accessible, so a ramp is necessary to make that happen.

He said that due to financial constraints from the Boston Housing Authority, there is a deadline of the end of the year to submit plans to make the building accessible to receive funding for the project.

Rubinoff explained that part of the project includes repairing the vault that is underneath he front steps, “which is structurally in poor condition,” he said, but that work would not be visible from a public way.

He also said that the proposal presented at the hearing is completely complaint with requirements from the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, and that to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, a door has to be at least 34 inches wide, which would mean that the existing historical doors would have to be removed, as they are less wide than that.

Though it was not part of the official proposal, Boston Landmarks Commission Director of Design Review Joseph Cornish said “this is a big issue.” Rubinoff explained that ideally, the doors would not be replaced, but they do need to be accessible.

The proposed ramp would be along Cortes St., and Rubinoff said the ramp has to be outside “because the building is very small and tight.” The ramp would consist of a concrete surface with black railings, he said.

The existing front steps would also have to be replaced and brought forward towards Berkeley St. Rubinoff said that the public sidewalk would remain as-is, and the “remaining triangular area on Berkeley St.” would have landscaping with various plants.

Cornish suggested that Rubinoff go back before the Architectural Access Board and request a variance, and explain the historic district guidelines to the board.

Rubinoff said he has “tried,” but has not heard back from the board after submitting this presentation to the board “for an informal review.”

Cornish also said that he believes the proposed railing extensions are not appropriate for the building, but Rubinoff said they were left in the proposal because they are not currently blocking any paths of egress, which complies with Architectural Board requirements, he said.

Shinrock said that they hope to see a plan for the accessible entry into the building before the end of the year. “If we miss the BHA’s deadline, we may abandon the affordability aspect…” of the project, he said, adding that it would either be kept as market rate units or sold.

“As citizens, we need affordable housing, so it would be unfortunate if this discussion led to taking affordable [units] out of the equation,” said Commissioner Stephen Dunwell. Though he and other Commissioners recognized that the use of a building is not part of a landmarks discussion, they did acknowledge that they believe affordable housing is important to the neighborhood and the city as a whole. 

“We’ve had several projects come where the Access Board had to weigh in…” Cornish said. “I’m concerned here with the amount of unknowns. I’m really troubled by the request to replace the front entry doors,” as this is “something that would be completely against the guidelines.” He said he also has concerns with the “size of the ramp and alteration of the front steps.”

He said that while the steps themselves are not historic, the “additional railings” would be a “feature that is not really appropriate to this building.”

Rubinoff said he’d be “happy” to continue communicating with the Architectural Access Board, and explained that he had gotten variances in the past for ramps.

“We try to be very user-friendly, to be quite honest with you,” Commissioner Anne Kilguss said of the Commission. “At the same time, we have a responsibility.” She agreed that the Commission is “sympathetic of low cost housing,” but said that “I feel like we’re being pressured and pushed.”

Shinrock said that the project team has been working with the Boston Housing Authority and the Department of Neighborhood Development for more than a year regarding this proposal.

Commissioner Ruth Knopf said that there are “far too many contingencies that have to be taken into account before we can submit a reasonable bit of guidance. I think the project is laudable, but I agree with Anne.”

Dunwell said he believes the ramp would be a “very large addition” to the corner, and said he would like to see different options for making the building accessible.

The Commission voted to deny this project without prejudice, which means the proponents can come back before the Commission with a different proposal.

Cornish recommended that the team take the feedback provided by the Commission to the Architectural Access Board, and the hope is to work out a design that satisfies the requirements of both groups. Rubinoff said that the information given by the Commission was “useful” to provide to the board.

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