Neighbors Fear That Harvard Club Redevelopment Project Could Set Dangerous Zoning Precedent

 A number of neighbors on hand for a city-sponsored public meeting held virtually on Tuesday, Oct. 3, to discuss the planned redevelopment of the Harvard Club of Boston site in the Back Bay expressed their deep concern that a mechanism used for its requested zoning relief could end up setting a dangerous precedent in the neighborhood.

​Boston real estate developer Trinity Financial intends to redevelop 415 Newbury St. and 374 Commonwealth Ave., which are both currently owned by the Harvard Club of Boston, along with an adjacent surface parking lot, into two new buildings. The smaller, three-story, 37-foot building would contain affordable and market-rate condominiums and include 38 units of mixed-use housing, as well as 125 residential parking spaces, while the larger, 11-story, 120-foot building will contain 95 units of market-rate rentals, along with Harvard Club amenity space. The Harvard Club will manage and own the on-site parking.

​The project was first envisioned as a hotel in 2019 but changed to a residential development two years ago, largely in response to community feedback, which underscored the critical need for more affordable home-ownership opportunities in the Back Bay, said Abby Goldenfarb, vice president of Trinity. Presently, there are only six Inclusionary Development Policy home-ownership units, which the city require for market-rate housing developments of 10 or more units, located in the Back Bay, she said.

The number of on-site, affordable home ownership units has been increased from 20 to 23 (or from 15 to 17 percent), since the last iteration of the project was presented at a virtual, city-sponsored public meeting held on March 30. All of these affordable units would be located onsite in the smaller of the two proposed buildings.

Besides adding new trees and bike racks throughout and around the site, as well as widening sidewalks and making landscaping improvements, the project proposes a new pocket garden to the southeast of the site, adjacent to the Room & Board furniture store at 375 Newbury St. The pocket park would be home to a sculpture of Richard Theodore Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard College who went on to become the first Black professor at the University of South Carolina and dean of the Howard University School of Law, said James Heroux, a principal with the Boston architectural firm, Copley Wolff Design Group.

But despite all the promised benefits from the project, the developer is also proposing the first Planned Development Area (PDA), which is defined by the Boston Planning & Development Agency as “an overlay zoning district [of at least an acre] of land that establishes special zoning controls for large or complex projects,” in the Back Bay Historic District as part of this project.

​David Linhart, an attorney for the applicant, said while there could be other means of achieving zoning relief for the project, such as delegating the matter to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal, the developer is instead seeking a PDA  because it “allows the zoning parameters” to achieve the project’s goals for design and programming.

The site also “straddles” two zoning districts, “making zoning compliance complicated and problematic,” said Linhart during the Sept. 12 virtual meeting of the city’s Impact Advisory Group for the project.

​Furthermore, the developer would need to seek additional zoning relief from the city if they intend to change the project again in the future, said Linhart, “so it’s not just a blank check.”

​District 8 City Councilor Sharon Durkan said she would support the project, largely because of the new affordable home-ownership opportunities it would create in the Back Bay, and on account of the developer’s promises to improve the public realm.

​But Durkan also expressed concern that the proposed PDA could set  “a precarious precedent” in the Back Bay and asked the city to put a “pause “on future PDAs in the neighborhood.

​Elliott Laffer, a longtime director of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the group’s former board chair, also wasn’t convinced of the need for a PDA, especially since it would only apply to a small portion of the proposed project.

​“This is not the type of project a PDA was designed for,” said Laffer, adding that PDAs were instead meant for larger, more complex projects, like the Prudential Center. “This is a very straightforward project,. This should be able to go through a conventional zoning process.”

​Likewise, Sue Prindle, another longtime NABB director, complimented the developer on what she described as a much-improved design for the project but said ultimately she couldn’t support it because of the proposed PDA, as well as on account of the development’s potential adverse impact on neighbors.

​Prindle asserted that the project site’s square footage doesn’t actually meet the criteria for a PDA, which, she said, “is clearly a way to spot-zone in the area.”

​Moreover, Prindle urged the city to hold an in-person meeting on the project to take a closer look at the potential traffic impacts of the project.

​(The project currently proposes only one Rideshare stop for everyone coming to and leaving the site, although traffic consultant Rob Woodland said a “flow-rate study” indicated  that expected traffic coming in and out of site could be accommodated per the current plan.)

Jax Crerar, who chairs the NABB Parking Committee, said her biggest concern was how much traffic the project’s proposed valet service would add to the already congested conditions between Charlesgate East and the intersection of Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues.

Crerar added that proposed parking wouldn’t be enough to accommodate the dwelling units, which she predicts, will “cause mayhem in an already congested area.”

Pascale Schlaefli, who for nearly 30 years has served as general manager of the abutting Eliot Hotel at Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues, opposes the project as proposed and said she also expects that the additional traffic it creates “would overburden our district and impact our businesses.”

Schlaefli also expressed concern that the project has apparently only allotted 17 parking spaces for 125 dwelling units.

Meanwhile, Parker James, a member of the IAG, said he’s strongly in favor of the project, which he said will “change the trajectory” of the lives of the owners of its 23 affordable units.

​“Affordable condo units are very, very rare,” he said. “They are extremely difficult to finance.”

​James also said he expects the project would help “stabilize” the block abutting Charlesgate East, where open-air drug deals have been a common occurance for the past 35 years.

​The public comment period for this project closes Monday, Oct. 10. Visit to submit public comments or for more information on the project. Public comments can also be submitted until Oct. 10 via email to Sarah Black, BPDA project manager, at [email protected].

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