Rob Whitney is stepping down as chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association at the organization’s annual meeting on Monday, May 16, ending his 18-year tenure on board, which began in 2004. But he said this journey began earlier that same year when he saw a notice about an upcoming hearing of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission at City Hall in this publication.
One application on the hearing agenda was from an abutter to install a locked gate at Holmes Alley, which links South Russel Street to Smith Court and once served as a “secret” passageway used by abolitionists to transport emancipated and escaped slaves to freedom, and at the hearing, Whitney told Joel Pierce, then chair of the commission, that Holmes Alley was a public alley that couldn’t be closed since everyone has a right to cross through it.
The commission ultimately denied the application, and Holmes Alley remains an ungated public alley up to the present day.
A member of the Civic Association approached Whitney, who had been a member of the group for several years already at that point, to say she appreciated his comments after the meeting, and about a month later, Whitney was asked by another board member to join the group – an offer that he graciously accepted.
A native of Manhattan, Whitney earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in Providence, R.I., before relocating to Boston to attend law school at Boston University. After law school, he spent a year working as a clerk for a judge in Illinois before he returned to Boston and rented an apartment on Hancock Street.
Whitney had gotten to know Beacon Hill when he was preparing for the bar exam and regularly make the trek from Audubon Circle, where he was living the time, to study at Suffolk University Law School’s library, which was then located on Temple Street.
“I always loved Beacon Hill and when I was going to law school, I liked the neighborhood and walked around it a lot,” he said.
After living on Hancock Street from 1985 until 1989, Whitney moved to the home on Hancock Street, where he still lives today.
Asked what his most memorable accomplishments during his time with the Civic Association board were, Whitney replied, “I’m really proud of the Candidates Forums I’ve helped organize. One of my interests is voting and getting people to vote.”
Whitney estimates he has helped organize around 15 Candidates Forums for Mayor, City Councilor (both District 8 and at-Large), State Senator, and State Representative races since he joined the Civic Association board; the last one was a Mayoral Forum, which was hosted virtually last summer and drew more than 100 guests online.
For these Candidates Forum, Whitney has always reached out to other surrounding neighborhoods and gotten core groups like the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, the West End Civic Association, the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association, and the Bay Village Neighborhood Association involved as well.
“They’re not only great fun, and it encourages people to participate in the political process, which is voting,” said Whitney. “I also think people appreciate having the opportunity to meet the candidates, and to hear their answers to important questions that affect the community.”
Whitney also served on the city’s Suffolk University Institutional Task Force at the recommendation of then-District 8 City Councilor Mike Ross. He served as chair of the Task Force in 2006 and as the Civic Association’s representative on the group from 2006-2008 and again in 2018-19.
In this role, Whitney led a successful effort to thwart Suffolk’s plan to build a 33-story dormitory building in the neighborhood and later negotiated directly with the university on behalf of the Civic Association to help develop a plan for 20 Somerset St., including personally drafting an agreement whereby, he said, “Suffolk agreed to begin the process of moving out of historic district and to substantially limit any additional development or expansion of Suffolk in or near Beacon Hill neighborhood.”
Ultimately, Whitney said, “It worked out great for us, and Suffolk was happy with the results as well. They got the old Ames Hotel as dorms, which I don’t think would’ve ever happened if they had stayed on Beacon Hill.”
At the Civic Association’s Dec. 13 board meeting at the Boston Athenaeum – their first in-person gathering since the pandemic struck – Whitney introduced a motion, which was unanimously supported, to enact a Home Rule Petition by the City Council to amend the language for the 1963 Enabling Act that created the Beacon Hill Historic District to expand its boundaries to include all of the North Slope by adding an approximately 40-foot-wide area running from Charles Circle to Bowdoin Street along Cambridge Street.
“There’s been an effort for many years to put it back in,” said Whitney. “The idea to expand the Historic District is in part because I’ve always been interested in protecting the historic architecture and resources on Beacon Hill.”
Boston Preservation Alliance and Historic New England are on board in support of the ordinance, which is now pending while awaiting a possible hearing date with the City Council.
In 2019, Whitney led the effort to establish the Beacon Hill Community Fund, which awards annual grants to other deserving community-based nonprofits operating in the area.
According to the motion made by Whitney at the Civic Association’s board meeting in April of 2019, the Beacon Hill Community Fund was established to distribute funding each year “to community-based Beacon Hill, Cambridge Street, and adjacent neighborhood non-profit organizations, community development corporations, and other civic groups dedicated to promoting and enhancing quality of life in the community through projects and programs for residents involving the arts and education, youth sports and recreation, day care centers, playgrounds, activities for seniors and persons with special needs and disabilities, community gardens and spaces, affordable housing, social services, and whatever the [board]…deems appropriate.”
Last December – in the program’s third year – $39,500 was awarded in annual grants to 10 deserving community-based nonprofit organizations via the Community Fund, and over the last three years, the fund has given out nearly $75,000 in all.
“It’s been great that we have this fund, which is invested and has grown over time,” sad Whitney.
Moreover, Whitney said he was able to see the funds at use firsthand last week when the Nichols House hosted an event for members of the Civic Association’s Founders Circle in the museum’s Visitor Learning Center – a new amenity made possible with help from a $2,500 Community Fund grant awarded to the Nichols House in 2019.
Before his tenure as chair of the Civic Association in 2020-21, Whitney was the group’s president in 2018 and 2019, and he served on myriad committees during his tenure with the organization, including as a member of the Streets and Sidewalks Committee from 2014 to 2018; as a member of the Zoning and Licensing Committee from 2004 to 20018, as well an ex-officio member from 2018 to the present; as chair of the Planning Committee from 2016 to 2018 and committee co-chair from 2010 to 2016; and as a leading member of the original BHCA Planning Committee, which developed the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan in 2008.
Additionally, Whitney served as a member of Ad-Hoc BHCA Committee that revised the group’s bylaws and is currently the Civic Association’s representative to, as well as co-chair of, the Boston Groundwater Trust. He was also co-chair of BHCA’s Planning Committee’s Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on the 45 Temple St. Development Project in 2017-2018 and member of the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s Impact Advisory Group for the project in 2017-2018.
Likewise, Whitney has led efforts by the Civic Association to provide feedback on projects on and around Beacon Hill, including the East Bulfinch Crossing Parcel development as part of replacement of Government Center Garage; Mass General Hospital’s proposed expansion of its Cambridge Street campus; and the proposed redevelopment of the Hurley Building.
Whitney has also spearheaded efforts on Beacon Hill to increase low and moderate affordable housing for families, seniors, and persons with disabilities on Beacon Hill
Patricia Tully, executive director of the Civic Association, wrote in an email, “I’ve had the good fortune to work with Rob over the past seven years, and to learn from his vast experience on Beacon Hill. He is a huge resource of institutional knowledge, and I look forward to continuing to work with him in the future.”
While he is stepping away from the board, Whitney hopes to stay involved with the Civic Association. He’s been part of the Planning Committee since 2010 and hopes to continue working with them on long-term projects, like the planned MGH expansion. He also hopes to continue organizing Candidates Forums on behalf of the Civic Association, and to continue “shepherding “ the process to expand the Beacon Hill Historic District.
In the end, though, Whitney is confident he’ll be leaving the Civic Association board in competent hands.
“There are a lot of great board members and great people joining the board,” said Whitney. “The new leadership is going to be great for the next two years and thereafter, and I hope that I can be helpful to the organization in the future.”