SELDC Hears Advisory Review for New Building Proposed for 85 W. Newton St.

On September 15, South End Landmark District Commission heard an advisory review for the construction of a new building at 85 West Newton St. for the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts.

Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, CEO of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA), said that “we have expeditiously sent out an RFP” for this project, and have hired Studio ENEÉ and Ann Beha Architects to design the building.

The historic former church building had experienced severe structural issues and IBA said it was not financially feasible to make the repairs to the building, so a new one was proposed to replace it after several previous SELDC hearings ended with the granting of a mandatory certificate of exemption by the Commission, meaning the building could be torn down even though the Commission would not have permitted it otherwise. IBA also said their first choice was not to raze the building, but repairing it would not be financially feasible.

Architect Ann Beha said that the new building will be a “multipurpose community arts center” that “builds on the heritage that IBA has had for many decades.”

After providing a brief history of the area, Beha spoke about the site and its surrounding area. She said that the street currently includes mature trees and a “low rise building” next door. The surrounding area includes a playground and townhouses.

“We have a very complex setting,” she said, which “also includes a city alley, setbacks, areas in repair, and areas in disrepair.”

Architect Natasha Espada then talked about cultural identity and the Puerto Rican values that are to be upheld in the area. She said that Puerto Rican architecture is “historic, modernist, [and] contemporary,” and makes use of masonry and concrete materials, while Spanish Colonial architecture includes “vibrant colors.” She also talked about the importance of murals.

The presentation asked, “how do we make this a Puerto Rican building in the South End?”

Beha said that the proposed building would be 70 feet in height, and Espada went through the floor plans, saying that the building would be four stories high and include community space on the first two floors. The top two floors would be for administrative offices.

The team talked about the use of a terracotta color on the facade. Beha said that they had “been studying both color at the base and opening it more perhaps with some information about what goes on in the building.”

For the park area, the team showed the existing tree, but could not promise it would stay as part of the project. A mural is proposed for the righthand side of the building when facing it from the park.

Espada explained that the multipurpose room would be located “in the center of the block,” as “this is the center for the community. It’s very important for it to be as transparent as possible and as welcoming as possible.”

During the public comment period, Jonathan Alves of the Blackstone/Franklin Neighborhood Association (who was commenting as a private resident) said that “the design looks fantastic. IBA has done an incredible job incorporating many functional elements.” He added that he liked the activation of the street, and that “IBA has been extremely responsive to neighbor questions and comments” and has been willing to share updates with the community throughout this process.

“I love the design that I saw today,” said resident Pedro Cruz. He said it “makes sense” and “feels like it’s literally being designed for the community.”

While the Commission indicated that it understands and appreciates the need for cultural connection, they had some constructive criticism for portions of the proposed design.

Commissioner John Freeman said that the “South End Landmarks exists” to “preserve the context of the Victorian era of the South End.”

He said that the design as it stands now “isn’t becoming a South End building. The historic context of the South End hasn’t shown up yet and it has to to become an approvable building. The loss of the church was a huge loss of the fabric of the South End.”

Commissioner Catherine Hunt said she agreed with Freeman, and Commissioner John Amodeo spoke about the proposed mural.

He said that the Commission does not permit permanent murals on facades that face a public way, but the proposed mural is on a side that is not within the purview of the commission, so “that’s excellent.”

He then talked about the facade of this building and what makes up a South End building. He and Freeman said that there are “40 or 50 different elements” that constitute a South End building that can also be included in modern buildings. He told the team to take a look at other contemporary buildings in the South End to see how those elements have been incorporated.

“Be careful about how much color to introduce on the streetscape,” he said, adding that he thinks the terracotta color is “helpful.” He said that “very brightly colored elements on the facade” are not likely to be approved.

Calderon-Rosado said that “these are helpful comments,” and Beha asked what the best way to move forward is, as the design team wants to continue the process “promptly.”

Amodeo said that “this is an important enough new construction building,” that the design has to be held “to as high a standard as we can. We are here to help you.”

Beha said that she believes the best process would include input from all commissioners. She said that “we want to make sure we get to the hearings with everyone having talked to us about their concerns or enthusiasm. Inclusiveness has been our approach.”

Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission, said that the next step for the SELDC is another advisory review.

Calderon-Rosado said that the team has met with the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and plans on submitting an application for small project review next month. “Our goal would be to have that done in mid-October,” she said.

“None of us is concerned with FAR, height,” Freeman said. “The envelope is fine; you should go right ahead with zoning.”

Calderon-Rosado said to the Commission, “we see you as a partner in this process.”

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