The little Pinckney Street building located at the rear of a 1830’s six-story brick townhouse at 63 Mt. Vernon Street took center stage again, this time at the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission meeting Thursday.
The 300-square foot building at 28 Pinckney Street was built in 1917 as a carriage house for the Mt Vernon Street property, now owned by Jeffrey and Marisa Cohen. It was converted to a garage in 1925 and then to an apartment in the late 1940s. The Cohens plan to return the residence to its original use as a garage where they’ll park two cars tandem-style.
Monika Pauli of Pauli & Uribe Architects appeared before the BHAC to review her design plans that included reintroducing a garage door and curb cut. “Unfortunately, there are no historic photographs showing what the door was like,” said Pauli, who wants to make it look like a carriage house door with some windows. She plans to strip the paint from the brick wall to see what’s there and then work with the Commission to determine the best design.
Commissioner Tom Hopkins quickly moved that the BHAC approve the plans on the condition that Pauli return with more specific design details and building material samples. But one commissioner and several neighbors attending the meeting were not on board. It wasn’t the design that troubled them; it was the conversion of the building back to a private garage after more than 70 years as a residence.
The same concern had been raised in February when neighbors attended a Beacon Hill Civic Association Zoning and Licensing Committee meeting primarily focused on the renovation of the larger Mt Vernon Street building. Many objected to the conversion because it would involve restoring the long unused curb cut in the sidewalk. They feared having cars back out over a sidewalk would be unsafe to pedestrians and that the radius needed for a turning vehicle would result in the loss of two parking spaces on the other side of the street.
At that time, Committee Chair Tom Clemens expressed doubt that the Inspectional Services Department would identify the change of use from a residence to a garage as a zoning violation. It didn’t.
According to Erin Doherty, preservation planner at the Boston Landmarks Commission, the building is still designated a garage and the curb cut is grandfathered. “You say the building is still designated a garage,” quipped Hopkins. “In another words, it was [being used as] an illegal apartment.” She agreed.
The neighbors had pinned their hope on the BHAC. Although clearly opposed to the conversion, Chairman Joel Pierce acknowledged that the BHAC couldn’t adjudicate the uses of buildings. But several Pinckney Street neighbors tried to convince them anyway.
“Functionality, not aesthetics, is the issue here,” argued Vincent Spiziri. “It is too narrow an area of the street to use as a site for a garage. I don’t believe it is feasible to back a modern car out of it. It is troubling to me that we could have reached this point [in the process] without the neighbors being heard. It is premature to move this forward.”
Alecia Manning also regretted that the residents hadn’t had a chance to have an input on the decision. Elizabeth McCann was concerned that cars backing out of the garage would hurt the sidewalk and traffic patterns.
Two former BHAC commissioners – Martha McNamara, a Pinckney Street resident, and Mark Kiefer, now BHCA president – opposed the conversion, because of the importance of maintaining the social, as well as physical, history of Beacon Hill. “Pinckney Street has an interesting history,” said McNamara. “This building is part of the quirkiness of the street that reflects the bohemian artist era. It’s a little piece of history since 1944, and a curb cut would disrupt this. We are erasing history and ending up with another cookie cutter pattern.”
But theirs pleas were to no avail. Commission members approved the design 3-1, with only Pierce objecting.