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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

GREG GALER
Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

City Council Overrules Boston Landmarks Commission – Tough Decision, Bad Precedent

December 19th, 2013  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Despite the efforts of many in Boston’s preservation community, yesterday the Boston City Council unanimously overruled the vote of the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) to designate a Boston Landmark, the first time in the last 20 years they have taken this very rare step. The property in question was the Kehew-Wright House at 24 Grampian Way in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, once the home of George Wright, a Baseball Hall of Famer who captained the Boston Red Stockings, the forerunner of the Boston, now Atlanta Braves and helped popularize many sports nationally. The 1871 mansard-roofed mansion, which sits high atop Savin Hill with extraordinary views to downtown Boston and the harbor, is in tough shape after years of disinvestment and neglect. But if there’s anything preservationists know well, it’s that today’s sow’s ear can become tomorrow’s cherished silk purse once proper care is taken  especially in a popular neighborhood like Savin Hill where property values are rising.

The City Council does have a role to play in the landmark process. Once a building is designated by the Landmarks Commission and receives the mayor’s approval, the City Council has 30 days to overturn this decision by a two-thirds majority. While the initial decision is expertise-driven, the Council’s role exists to provide political input, in addition to that provided by the citizen-generated petition that initiates this process and the ample opportunity for public input at multiple hearings held at every stage. In the case of the Kehew-Wright House, the building was thoroughly studied and the landmark process took over a year to complete.

However, despite the efforts of the Landmark Commission staff and the Alliance to engage them, the property owners of the Kehew-Wright House, the Tomasini family, were dead set against the landmark designation and were able to rally substantial political influence against it. Although it is well known that landmarking confers long-term financial advantage once a building is restored, regrettably the Council chose to back the short-term advantage to the property owner who seeks the widest possible market for an empty lot (they have already successfully petitioned ISD to allow them to take down a carriage house contemporary to the house). In doing this they dissed not only the expertise and hard work of the Commission and its staff, they undermined the neighborhood’s overall quality of life.

What’s most disappointing about this vote to actively reject the decision of the Landmarks Commission is that it opens the door to weaken the City’s strongest tool for protecting historic resources. With Landmark Designation the BLC is empowered to protect the historic character of the city over the objections of property owners. The guidelines recommended by a landmark study allow for a variety of levels of control and protection, as preservationists understand that viable economic use is an important part of preservation. Creative adaptive use and rehabilitation of historic buildings, often with modifications and new construction allowed by the Landmark Guidelines, are frequently a win-win for both property owners and the city. A project that incorporates an historic structure is almost always ultimately more lucrative than a tear down and maximum modern build-out and it improves the community by maintaining the attractive character of our neighborhoods. And claims that such regulations are a violation of property rights have been soundly rejected by the courts (See the US Supreme Court’s Penn Central case:

http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/law-and-policy/legal-resources/preservation-law-101/resources/The-Penn-Central-Decision.pdf).

Additionally, the route by which the City Council overturned the BLC decisions raises some questions. The Council’s Committee on Economic Development and Planning held a hearing last week at which six people testified, all in support of the landmark. Only two Council members attended and only the chair stayed for the full hearing. Not a single piece of testimony was provided opposing the landmarking beyond comments of the two councilors. Come time for the full City Council meeting yesterday this item was not listed specifically on the agenda, but was discussed as a Committee Report (they called it a “Green Sheet”). When the Chair of the Committee was recognized and rose to report that a hearing had been held, he simply recommended that the landmarking be overruled with little more than a brief few sentences of rationale – no mention of testimony taken, no mention of overwhelming constituent calls to make such a hasty move. The motion was seconded. There was no – zero – discussion or questions and a unanimous vote (1 abstention).  Does this seem right to you?

Bad decision, bad precedent, disappointment in city policy and process.  A colleague suggested “coal lumps in their Christmas stockings.” Something to consider, I suppose, for those who celebrate Christmas!

But soon it will be a new year – and a new mayoral administration – and there is an important lesson for Boston’s preservation community here:  advocating for and teaching people (especially our elected officials) the worth of historic resources never ends, and it is our shared responsibility to speak up, show our strength and protect good public policy.

Let it be our new year’s resolution to re-engage our political leadership on historic preservation as an important tool for economic development and neighborhood pride,

 

 

 


 

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2 Responses

  1. Steven W Lindsey says:

    The Great Recession will have long-lasting and damaging effects on the Historic Preservation Movement which is in full retreat.

  2. Stephen Jerome says:

    What the city council committee on economic development and planning did doesn’t sound right, but it sounds tragically familiar. This Putin-style disregard for process is the standard modus operandi for so-called BRA community meetings, spotlighted in the recent Boston Globe expose on the charades in City Hall that have left a sick taste in the public for years. The Alliance can do more to change the culture in city government – and in this case, it can actively help find a buyer for this property to develop it with its flagship landmark house. It’s a landmark whether or not the city council says so.

Leave a Reply to Stephen Jerome