By Suzanne Besser
Just as springtime brings much anticipated flowering trees and colorful window boxes, it also spurs a proliferation of less than welcome construction sites popping up around the neighborhood.
Construction projects on Beacon Hill are not easy on neighbors, who must live with the consequent dumpsters, dust and debris as well as traffic problems and lost parking spaces. Nor are they easy on contractors, who must deal with an overload of zoning, permitting and neighborhood rules as well as narrow clogged roads, not enough parking spaces and often unhappy neighbors.
Yet some neighbors may be unaware of a partnership built more than a decade ago between the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), according to BHCA Executive Director Patricia Tully. It is a partnership that fosters better communication between contractors and neighbors, prevents contractor abuses of the permitting process and lessens the impact of construction on neighbors.
The partnership is part of the street occupancy permit process. “Contractors working in residences on Beacon Hill may apply, if needed, for a two-week street occupancy permit through the BTD and Public Works Department,” said Tracey C. Ganiatsos, BTD Public Information Manager. “If additional time is needed and the contractor would like the permit renewed, it is the contractor’s responsibility to work directly with the BHCA as the permit renewal request to the city must come from that organization.”
“The partnership was built in the late nineties during the dotcom bubble when the amount of work being done in the neighborhood was insane,” said Ben Colburn, who at the time co-chaired the BHCA Traffic and Parking Committee. Neighbors began complaining about the practices of some contractors.
“First it was a misuse of the street occupancy permits,” he said. “Despite the fact that the city parking permits were intended to be for the temporary parking of dumpsters, contractors were parking their pickup trucks there for months. All they had to do was to simply go down to BTD every two weeks and ask to renew their dumpster permits. And the city would renew them, just rubber stamp them.”
Seeing contractor’s personal vehicles parked in residential parking spaces did not settle well with residents of this parking-starved neighborhood. Coburn and his co-chair Maurice Katz went to BTD and pointed out that its permit process was being abused. It was then that BTD asked the BHCA to meet with the contractors and file their permit renewal requests.
Later on, during 1999 to 2003 when Coburn served as BHCA president and chair, the problem evolved to include contractors leaving streets and sidewalks dirty. It came to a head on the Flat of the Hill where water, clay and other muck was being left behind by construction crews working on the pilings beneath several homes. To stop this practice, the BHCA did not renew the permits until the contractor agreed to leave a clean worksite each day.
That process is still being followed. When the initial two-week permit given by BTD expires, the BHCA asks contractors to come to the office to sign an affidavit acknowledging that they will abide by the city guidelines for use of the temporary construction permit, including the prohibition against using such spaces for their employees’ own vehicles.
“This also gives us an opportunity to talk with the contractor and come to an understanding of what the project is about, what he or she needs to do to accomplish it, and what the neighborhood expects in return,” said Tully. ‘If a dumpster is involved, we ask them to complete the demolition in two weeks so that the usurped spaces can be returned to the residents as soon as possible. We encourage them to get to know their neighbors and to keep them aware of upcoming disruptive events such as road closures.”
But for the program to work, the BHCA depends on input from the neighbors. “Sometimes I take a random route throughout the neighborhood and discover abuses I didn’t know about,” said Tully. “To avoid that, I encourage neighbors to call with concerns or compliments regarding our neighborhood contractors. We want to hear from them so that we can solve problems before renewing the permits.”
Sometimes there is confusion about multiple permits, said Tully. When a permit is given for a specific function, such as staging, scaffolding or the use of a dump-truck, it is considered a new first-time permit. BHCA only weighs in when they are renewed.
Another way residents can help is to remove paper signs that contain expired permit information as the signs clutter the neighborhood and are confusing to both residents and drivers.
Tully said there are now about ten contractors involved with long term projects on the Hill. “They come in, are super pleasant and easy to work with,” she said. “If no neighborhood problems occur after the first renewal, we will approve subsequent ones online to make it easier for them.”
Beacon Hill is the only neighborhood in Boston where contractors must renew their street occupancy permits with the city every two weeks, rather than a month. It is also the only neighborhood where the permit renewal request comes from the neighborhood association.
Getting that approval is an extra step in the long process that contractors must follow. “It’s a little more legwork,” said Dan Kiley, a contractor who is currently renovating 49 Mt. Vernon Street. “But it keeps everyone in the loop and everyone knows what’s going on. Some neighbors are accommodating, some not so. You need to deal with everyone. The BHCA has been a great help when a neighbor has a complaint.”