Envisioning Developments That Will Enhance Downtown Living

February 3, 2014
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Reducing negative impacts by keeping a close eye on development in and around Beacon Hill is important to maintaining our historic residential neighborhood…so much so that the community set as its goal urban development that would enhance downtown living as their sixth, and final, aspiration in the 2011 Plan for the Neighborhood.

Just how does the community go about influencing urban development?

The process begins with building strong relationships with institutions,” stressed Stephen S. Young, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) that most often is the community vehicle working with neighboring institutions. “We need to keep in contact with those responsible for planning.”

The BHCA often steps into institutions’ planning processes by sending representatives to monitor proposals, serve on groups overseeing them and advocate for or against their approval.

Residents volunteer hours of their time serving on Impact Advisory Groups for proposed projects within the neighborhood, like those planned by Suffolk University, and those on the periphery, such as the Government Center Garage, the parcel of land near Haymarket and the Red Line/Blue Line Connector.

What’s important to residents reviewing downtown development projects is that they that promote downtown living, have a retail component, represent healthy institutional growth, and pay attention to architectural integrity and aesthetics, said BHCA board member John Achatz. Other considerations include shadows cast, views blocked and impacts caused by traffic patterns.In all of these projects the community works with its elected officials and neighboring residential communities. “Clearly the impacts are different for each neighborhood. We try to balance everyone’s interests,” said Achatz. “Recently, for example, we supported Back Bay’s opposition to Fisher College’s proposed expansion. Because the school is on Arlington Street, we also would be affected because the expansion would leave us surrounded by colleges.”

The West End had strong feelings about the location and height of Equity’s proposed apartment buildings. “In situations like this, by us not taking a strong position, we can facilitate dialogue and help others think through and come to a resolution,” said Achatz.

For generations, community leaders like Rollins Place resident Bernie Borman, who served as BHCA president in the seventies, stood firm in opposing institutional expansion into the neighborhood.

He and others argue that institutions view Beacon Hill as an ideal place for expansion because they want to locate their new facilities as close as possible to existing ones. Proximity to the State House and courthouses makes Beacon Hill residences ideally positioned for conversion to professional and other commercial uses.

The BHCA has long been the vehicle for fighting institutional expansion as well. Decades ago, a formal written agreement was struck that restricts expansion south of Cambridge Street by both Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) and Mass General Hospital, said Young.

That agreement has been called into play many times, most recently when MEEI proposed an expansion to its campus that included an annex to the hospital-owned John Jeffries House and the relocation of its main clinical building to Charles Street.

At that time, MEEI listened well to neighbor and city objections to its expansion on Beacon Hill, said Achatz. Those and other factors that influenced its strategic planning process prompted the hospital to withdraw the plan. MEEI has kept the neighborhood in the loop while it considers a second expansion plan.

Conversations with Suffolk have been ongoing, whether in formal settings by members of Impact Advisory Groups commenting on the university’s expansion plans or informally as neighbors seek ways to lessen impacts from some student behaviors. Current discussions with Suffolk and the Unitarian Universalist Association, however, are focusing on the neighborhood buildings both intend to sell.

Suffolk plans to sell the Fenton, Donahue and Ridgeway buildings as the university consolidates classroom space into a building now under construction at 20 Somerset Street, said Young. At this time, only the Fenton building is on the market.

The UUA, which is moving its headquarters to Boston’s Innovation District, has put its national headquarters at 25 Beacon Street, the Beacon Press on Mt. Vernon Street and two properties on Mount Vernon Place on the market.

A BHCA committee chaired by Achatz has been charged with looking into possible uses for each building that neighbors feels would enhance downtown living. Just how will the committee decide what uses are compatible with the neighborhood?

The answer reflects the aspirations set forth in the Plan for the Neighborhood, said Achatz. The community wants to remain a livable residential neighborhood where neighbors know each other and are engaged in their community. It envisions a mix of businesses, institutions and visitors that enhance residential life. It wants affordable housing, an elementary school and senior housing so that families of all ages and financial capacities can thrive. Finally it wants new green technologies and alternative mobility choices while at the same time preserving the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

These aspirations and goals provide a proactive view for Beacon Hill’s future. By incorporating them in neighborhood developments, the community takes steps forward toward enhancing downtown living and making the community’s visions become real.

This is the seventh and final story in a series about the Plan for the Neighborhood. Send your thoughts, comments and accomplishments you know about to suzannebesser@me.com.

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