‘The Year in Review’: Remarks by Robert A. Whitney, President from the Annual BHCA Meeting

Good evening!  I’m Rob Whitney, the President of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, and it is my distinct pleasure and honor to be here tonight with all of you in celebration of our historical organization.  As we edge closer and closer to our centennial in three years, I have been thinking of late about the long history of not just our civic association, but also our Beacon Hill neighborhood, home for many of us here tonight.  A recent chance encounter prompted such thinking. 

On our way to his soccer practice last week on the Esplanade, my son Adam and I happened upon several tourists on my street, Phillips Street, near the intersection with West Cedar Street.  Visitors from France, they were looking at a guide book, and, thinking they needed directions, I asked if I could help.  They said they were fine – but had a question:  “Has Beacon Hill always looked this way?”  My son began to roll his eyes, no doubt anticipating a non-short and non-quick response from his dad that would delay him getting to soccer practice!

“No – it has not,” I said.  “In fact, several hundred years ago, before landfilling was done, right about where we are standing, used to be the shoreline of the Charles River, and most likely at high tide, we would be under water.”  They looked around – as if checking to make sure the tide wasn’t coming in – as I told them how the North Slope of the Hill was one of the earliest areas developed on Beacon Hill, with homes and orchards going back to the early 1700s. 

Eventually, I continued, such farms came to be replaced by more densely-packed homes, coupled with small businesses such as cobblers and coopers, as well as “noxious” industries such as rope-making on long “rope walks” that many years later gave us the long unbroken runs such as Myrtle and South Russell Streets. 

As my son dragged me away towards Charles Circle en route to the soccer fields by the river, I thought more about how my little corner of the North Slope has changed even more over time, particularly my street – Phillips Street.  By the mid-1700s, the North Slope became home to more than 1,000 African Americans; by the early 1800s, the African Meeting House was built on Smith Court off Joy Street, which became a community center for black abolitionists.  The Underground Railroad ran through the North Slope and right down Phillips Street during the years prior to the Civil War. 

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Beacon Hill’s North Slope had absorbed an influx of European immigrants, with many early 19th century wooden homes razed to make way for new brick apartment buildings, or tenements.  Residential homes were also converted to boarding houses, and store fronts were built out on the ground floors and basements.  The Vilna Shul was established in 1898 on Phillips Street, as a place of worship for the many Jewish immigrants that had settled in the neighborhood.

By the 1950s, with the West End neighborhood coming under the wrecking ball, to prevent the destruction of historically significant buildings in Beacon Hill, the Beacon Hill Civic Association and local residents advocated for the protection of the historic neighborhood.  In 1955, the state legislature passed Chapter 616, which created the Beacon Hill Historic District, the first such district in Massachusetts. At first protecting only the South Slope, in 1958 that protection was extended to the Flat of the Hill.  Beacon Hill was designated a National Historic Landmark on Dec. 19, 1962. 

Finally, five years later, in 1963, the historic district was extended to include most of the North Slope of Beacon Hill.  (Just in the nick of time too – in 1960, a proposal was put forward by urban planners for the demolishing of many of the buildings existing on the North Slope, to make way for large apartment buildings with center courtyards for parking. This would have included many of the buildings along Phillips Street) 

Every street on Beacon Hill has a unique story to tell.  These are stories steeped in the history of the buildings along those streets and of the people that live there now.  The Beacon Hill Civic Association believes strongly in its mission to both protect and preserve the historic fabric of our neighborhood, as well to advocate on behalf of the quality of life for our residents of the community, as we move forward into the third decade of the 21st Century and beyond.  This protection and advocacy is done through our strong committee structure. 

Our Architecture Committee’s mission is to help maintain the architectural integrity of the historic district, by reviewing applications that are submitted to the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission to make changes to the exterior of buildings within Beacon Hill.  The Committee has worked hard this past year reviewing hundreds of applications, including those seeking to make changes both appropriate and not appropriate for the preservation of our historic district. 

The Committee also reviewed the designs put forward by the developers of the new Whitney Hotel at Charles Circle, and offering constructive ways to improve the hotel’s design to better fit in our historic neighborhood.  Also, with the advent of new technologies and increased data usage, the Committee has attempted to assist those that are seeking to build new cell towers and nodes within the historic district that would be minimally intrusive both in visual impact as well in proximity to neighbors. 

Our Zoning and Licensing Committee also had a busy year, reviewing many applications for variances from the zoning code or seeking approval for new or transferred alcoholic beverage licenses that were brought before the committee during its monthly meetings.  The Committee provides a forum for community input into such applications, where neighborhood residents and project abutters can come and hear about a proposed project and ask questions of the project developers and participate in discussions about the relief sought.

This past year the Committee reviewed 21 proposals in total, many seeking more than one type of zoning relief.  The most frequently requested form of relief was for excessive floor area ratio – FAR – to a proposed project, primarily in the form of new or expanded roof access “head houses,” penthouses and excavated basements.  The Committee carefully reviewed these proposed projects, and in each case, required the project proponent to justify – if possible – each variance sought.  Where such projects could not be justified, the Committee voted not to approve them.

While the Architecture Committee and the Zoning and Licensing Committee both primarily focus on the preservation and protection of the historic buildings and structures within our neighborhood, other committees focus on maintaining and protecting the quality of life of our community.  The Streets and Sidewalks Committee has had a busy year as well, and has worked with our City government in helping to keep our streets and sidewalks clean and well maintained.  The Committee also has worked in close collaboration with our state legislators and city councilors concerning the regulation of Airbnb-type establishments operating here in Beacon Hill, regulation that will help Beacon Hill maintain its residential character well into the future.

Our Planning and Oversight Committee serves to initiate, monitor and oversee the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s efforts on long range issues that will affect our neighborhood for years to come.  The Committee this year has begun work with respect to the large project that MGH has proposed for Cambridge and Blossom Streets, reviewing in detail MGH’s proposal and sponsoring a “town hall” for Beacon Hill residents to come together to question the project developers and discuss their concerns about the project.  Coming up this fall will be Suffolk University’s renewal of its 10-year institutional master plan, so more work lies ahead for the committee. 

The Parks and Public Spaces Committee also has been active in our community, working closely with the Friends of the Public Garden and others seeking to and ultimately succeeding in reducing the impact of the so-called “Freedom Rally” – also known as Hempfest – on the Boston Common and limiting the event permit to only one day, down from three days.  The Tree and Civic Beautification Committee has continued its efforts to oversee the maintenance, watering and planting of trees and plants throughout our Beacon Hill community, particularly with respect to the trees and tree pits along Charles Street. 

The Events Committee also has worked hard this past year, hosting events on the Hill that encourage dialogue, civic engagement and friendship.  One such event was the very successful Fall Hillfest in September, then the Halloween on the Hill, followed by the annual Garlands and Greens fundraiser.  The Events Committee also hosted an Evening at the Friends House, featuring traditional Turkish music, as well as hosting an Historic Preservation Roundtable with the Museum of African American History. 

The Traffic and Parking Committee continued its important work this past year, focusing on safety for residents and visitors to Beacon Hill, inasmuch as we have seen increased roadway congestion through the downtown neighbors, Beacon Hill in particular.  One project that the Committee has been working on has been the start this spring of the construction of raised crosswalks at a number of dangerous intersections to reduce the speed of cars traversing the Hill, which has been a primary objective of residents and the Committee.  The raising of these crosswalks will also be a great benefit to persons with mobility disabilities, providing flatter crosswalks in our neighborhoods.

These and the many other committees that make up the BHCA have worked hard this past year to improve the quality of life of our neighborhood residents.  In closing, I’d like to highlight two other long-range programs that the BHCA has worked on this past year to benefit our community.

First, the BHCA has been collaborating with the City of Boston to increase access throughout the historic neighborhood for persons with disabilities.  If you have noticed the recent construction activity along Beacon Street, Walnut Street and Mt. Vernon Street, among others, the City has been rebuilding the sidewalks at various intersections to increase accessibility for those persons with mobility disabilities and well as those persons with visual disabilities.  With the installation of long-lasting cast iron tactile warning pads, as well as the use of smoother wirecut sidewalk bricks, at these intersections, this continuing project will make Beacon Hill even more accessible well into the future.

Second, I’d like to mention the recent vote of the BHCA board of directors to launch a new community fund grant program that will award up to $20,000 each year to deserving applicants to help finance projects and programs to promote and enhance the quality of life in our Beacon Hill and neighboring communities.  This is an important program, where the BHCA will be partnering with residents and neighbors on small civic-minded projects throughout our downtown neighborhoods.  We look forward to implementing this new program this summer and fall. As I started off discussing this evening, Beacon Hill has seen much change over the centuries and it will likely see more change in the future.  While the BHCA is very concerned about preserving our historic neighborhood, we also recognize that our neighborhood is a living neighborhood, with residents concerned about quality-of-life issues happening right now and that will affect us for years to come.  Supporting both the historic past as well the neighborhood’s future is what our organization is all about.  We are thankful for your continued support this past year and into the future.  Have a good evening.

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