Beacon Hill Civic Association Hold 98th Annual Meeting

Remarks by Robert A. Whitney, President

Good evening and welcome to our first ever virtual Annual Meeting!  I’m Rob Whitney, the President of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, and it is my great honor to be with all of you this evening in celebration of our historic organization but also in sober reflection on the extreme suffering and difficulties that our neighbors and friends on Beacon Hill – as well as people everywhere – are facing right now. 

As we as an organization continue to respond to this challenging “COVID-19” pandemic, concern for the health of our members, the residents of Beacon Hill, the general public, and our staff is our top priority.  Our sympathy and thoughts go out to the people who have been affected by this challenge and we appreciate all of the healthcare workers, local communities, and governments in Boston, in Massachusetts, in our nation and around the world who are on the front line working to contain COVID-19.  We will look out for one another and help our neighbors in every way that we can. 

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 – and this mission absolutely includes serving the needs of all of our residents during these troubled times.  This protection and advocacy is done through our strong committee structure.  In addition to our focus on helping out our community during these difficult times, we have also moved forward with projects and programs that we have promised to pursue, and our work continues.  Let me take you through the work of our team members in furtherance of our mission.  We have a number of active committees that support all of you, from those committees that focus on historic preservation issues, and from those that focus on the quality of life issues of our neighborhood, to those that focus on bringing our community members together and to those that look forward to planning for the future of our neighborhood.  

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. 

For example, the Architecture Committee reviewed the designs put forward by the architects and owners of the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro, offering constructive ways to improve proposed renovation work to better fit within our historic neighborhood.  Also, with the advent of 5G new technologies and increased data usage, the Committee has continued 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.  The Architecture Committee also offered constructive comments and suggestions concerning the preliminary renovation plans for 71 Charles Street – the former “Hungry I” – that the new building owners plan to turn into Charles Street’s newest bookstore and café.

Our Zoning and Licensing Committee also had a very busy year, reviewing various applications for variances from the zoning code or seeking approval for new or transferred alcoholic beverage licenses that were brought before the Committee.  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. 

The Zoning and Licensing Committee carefully reviewed these proposed projects, and in each case, required the project proponent to justify – if possible – each variance sought.  Most recently, the Zoning and Licensing Committee held its first Zoom meeting to review proposed zoning variance requests concerning the proposed new bookstore on Charles Street.

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 works with our City government in helping to keep our streets and sidewalks clean and well maintained. 

In partnership with the City, the Committee recently supported the Collapsible Bin pilot project on the Hill, where the City provided collapsible plastic bins to residents on certain test streets on Beacon Hill to reduce access to the trash by rodents.  The Committee hopes to continue with this pilot once the current situation improves sufficiently to be able to safely handle collapsible bins.  The Committee has also continued discussions with the City on having manual sweepers help to clean up loose trash on Beacon Hill on a regular basis.

Our Planning Committee has continued its mission 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 Planning Committee, in conjunction with the Street & Sidewalks Committee, this past year sponsored a “Town Hall” event for Beacon Hill residents to come together to question City officials about the City’s new trash and recycling pickup contracts. 

The Planning Committee also worked on the MGH development proposal for a large new building abutting Cambridge and Blossom Streets, including offering constructive feedback to the MGH leadership about possible changes to the proposal, incorporating our concerns with the long-standing traffic problems on Cambridge Street, and our desire to have the MGH facilities garage located on Garden Street converted into affordable housing.

In September 2019, in order to keep us all informed about local candidates for office, the Planning Committee, along with the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay and the West End Civic Association, sponsored a “Downtown Neighborhoods Candidates Forum” featuring the candidates for our local Eighth District City Councilor race that attracted over 120 attendees.

The Parks and Public Spaces Committee is charged with monitoring the condition of our neighborhood’s greenspaces, primarily the Common, the Public Garden and the Esplanade.  The Parks and Public Spaces Committee continues to work with the Friends of the Public Garden and the City on the development of the new master plan for Boston Common, and to locate sustainable spaces for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston memorial, ensuring that the interests of all stakeholders are taken into account to improve the quality of life for all on Beacon Hill.

The Tree Committee, under new leadership, has revitalized the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s efforts to oversee the maintenance, watering and planting of trees throughout our Beacon Hill neighborhood.  With an increased regard for the necessity of maintaining our neighborhood’s tree cover, and the benefit that trees bring by helping us reduce the carbon footprint of our historic district, the Committee has recently begun a survey of the entire historic neighborhood’s trees and tree pits.  We will complete the survey later this summer, and create a database of our tree cover that will assist the Parks Department with a detailed map of the types and health of our trees, now and into the future. 

The Events Committee hosted various events on the Hill that encouraged dialogue, civic engagement and connection.  This past fall started with the Fall HillFest in September, and then we had “Halloween on the Hill.”  The Fall HillFest this year was planned to coincide with the first “Open Charles Street Day,” a city-sponsored pedestrian only day for Charles Street that was organized by the Joint Charles Street Committee, a collaboration between the Beacon Hill Civic Association and the Beacon Hill Business Association. 

The Gala Committee also worked very hard this past fall and early winter to plan and prepare for the 48th Annual Beacon Hill Civic Association Gala.  The Gala, returning again to the Four Seasons Hotel, was a great success, and celebrated our Beacon Hill community of neighbors. 

The Traffic and Parking Committee continued its important work this past year, with a continued focus on safety for residents and visitors to Beacon Hill.  One continuing project involves working with the City on getting raised crosswalks at a number of dangerous intersections to reduce the speed of cars traversing the Hill.  The Traffic and Parking Committee also has explored the possible expansion of bicycle lanes on the streets surrounding Beacon Hill and methods for lessoning the impact of cars using navigation systems such as “Waze” to cross Beacon Hill streets to avoid traffic lights on Cambridge, Beacon and Charles Streets.

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

For several years now, the Beacon Hill Civic Association has collaborated with the City of Boston to increase access throughout the historic neighborhood for persons with disabilities.  This past year, the City has rebuilt the sidewalks at various intersections on the Hill to increase accessibility for those persons with mobility disabilities and well as those persons with visual disabilities, including along Beacon Street, Charles Street, Walnut Street, Joy Street and Mt. Vernon Street. 

This coming summer, the City is hoping to continue theses efforts on several other streets on Beacon Hill, including West Cedar Street.  This continuing project will make Beacon Hill even more accessible well into the future, which the Beacon Hill Civic Association welcomes and fully supports.

This past year, the Beacon Hill Civic Association launched a new “Beacon Hill Community Fund” grant program that will award over the coming years, thousands of dollars each year to deserving applicants to help finance projects and programs that promote and enhance the quality of life in our Beacon Hill and neighboring communities.  At the Civic Association’s annual Holiday Board of Directors Meeting held this past December at the Athenaeum, the Civic Association awarded $22,500 to first six grant recipients:  We look forward to continuing this new program in the coming years, particularly in these difficult times, so that we can help out as much as possible, our non-profit neighbors.

Finally, I’d like to note the efforts of the Civic Association – and in particular its Executive Director and staff – in working so hard to keep our neighborhood informed of the COVID-19 pandemic issues around the clock.  We have strived to keep our members informed of the City and state directives and recommendations to ensure that the members of our community and the general public remain healthy and safe, while the Beacon Hill Civic Association continues to serve the needs of the residents of Beacon Hill, as we have done for almost 100 years. 

In this regard, we reached out to our Beacon Hill neighbors and asked children to make cards for the seniors living at Beacon House on Myrtle Street, which the Civic Association would deliver.  We had an outpouring of responses and many cards were received from kids all over the Hill – including from my 10 year daughter Jordan – and delivered to Beacon House where they were received with much appreciation.

We also started last month, our Beacon Hill Mask Initiative for our Beacon Hill neighbors whom might have limited ability to obtain masks on their own.  To date, we have given out over 250 free masks to residents of Beacon House, the 250 Cambridge Street apartments, the Bowdoin School Apartments and the Peter Faneuil School apartments.  We have also donated masks to the Advent Church to use in their weekly program to feed the homeless and provide them with needed toiletries – and now masks as well!  Because of the overwhelming demand, we have ordered an additional 200 masks that we will be delivering soon to those in need throughout our neighborhood.

I read in the news the other day, that the stay-at-home directives that have been in effect in many states – including our own – has rekindled an interest in the reading of classic literature.  This brought to mind my favorite Charles Dickens novel – “A Tale of Two Cities.”  Its famous opening lines are well-known:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness . . . .”

In many ways, it is the “worst of times” right now for many of us, as our residents stay indoors for safety, and come out only infrequently as required to get supplies or go to work.  And some of us have gotten sick.  We are all concerned about the safety of our loved ones, both young children and older folks – who all deserve and require our protection.  But I think that the “best of times” is also here as well, in the care that neighbors have shown to neighbors – or even strangers – in helping to get food or other supplies to those who can’t go out themselves, in the way in which we are trying to help local businesses stay afloat until better days finally come, and in the way that neighbors have reconnected with long-lost friends through new online technologies, to express concern and offer help and love. 

The economy will recover, and we will all get through this even if it takes a while.  If we stick together, and respect each other and care for those in need, a new “season of light” will banish this “season of darkness.”  Thank you – and have a good evening.

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