The City Council Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on February 8 regarding a petition for a special law regarding an Act Relative to the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) that would change language in the requirements for Boston buildings, sites, and other features to be eligible for consideration to be a landmark.
Sponsored by Councilors Kenzie Bok and Liz Breadon, Bok said the docket came to be as a result of many conversations Bok has had with her constituents during her time as a councilor.
When the Boston Landmarks Commission was established in 1975, it was written into the language that in order for a Boston building or site to be landmarked, it has to be “any physical feature or improvement designated by the commission in accordance with section four as a physical feature or improvement which in whole or part has historical, social, cultural, architectural or aesthetic significance to the city and the commonwealth, the New England region or the nation,” according to the legislation.
The petition would not automatically landmark any buildings or sites, and the existing process would still be in place. The petition would simply change the language to allow more buildings and sites to be eligible by allowing city significance alone to be enough for something to be considered for landmarking.
In order to become official, the proposal “would need consideration at the State House and a signature from the governor,” Bok said.
“This should be a decade where we think about how to preserve our city’s history,” Bok continued. She said that Boston should be focusing on “acknowledging the richness and diversity” of its history, including immigrant, African American, Native American, and other contributions.
She said that she believes the current “standard of significance to the Commonwealth or nation” has had a connotation of preserving the white narrative of the history of the city of Boston.
“I think that’s something we should find ways to undo,” Bok said.
“I feel strongly about this issue,” Councilor Breadon said. “This initiative is an important thing to try and protect.”
Councilor Ed Flynn said that he is “interested in learning about the contributions of immigrants to our city. I would like to learn more about the proposal and see what specifically the city of Boston has to do if something is historic or what type of interaction they have to do with the state or federal government.”
Carl Spector, Commissioner of the Environment Department for the City of Boston, said that this petition “will help create clarity” when it comes to landmarks.
“We don’t see any reason why that level of eligibility shouldn’t apply to individual landmarks also,” he said. “Because of the existing differences in eligibility that we have, we have made some attempts to protect individual buildings by instead of landmarking them, creating very, very small historic districts. That’s a much more cumbersome, complicated, and lengthy process. We would prefer to not go through that if we don’t have to. We think this is a very good proposal, and we certainly support its passage.”
Roseanne Foley, Executive Director of the Boston Landmarks Commission, said that the language as it stands now was “an oversight back in the ‘70s that has caused us endless headaches.” She said it “would be wonderful to have local historic landmarks.”
Foley explained the current process for creating a landmark in Boston. She said to start the process, there must be a petition of 10 registered voters “for whichever resource…folks want to designate,” and then it goes on a waiting list and is designated as a pending landmark “until we get the resources to do the study report,” which describes the history, planning background, architectural history, and other aspects of the building. The public is involved in this process and is allowed to provide input, and if the BLC votes to designate a building as a landmark, it is registered at the Register of Deeds.
Lynn Smiledge, Chair of the BLC, said that the BLC currently only has three preservation tools, and “of those three, two of them don’t really work well.”
She said that the three tools are local districts, Article 85 Demolition Delay, and landmarking. Smiledge said that local districts “take years to put in place,” the Article 85 demo delay “doesn’t work at all” and is “largely a waste of time and effort.”
As for Landmarking, she said it is “tricky because we can only landmark a handful of buildings.” She said that right now, there are only about 110 landmarked buildings across the entire city.
She said that the current language “forces us to only consider buildings important beyond Boston,” but she said “we believe a building needs to be important to Bostonians” to be a landmark in Boston.
Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said that he is “very much in support” of this petition.
He added, “this isn’t how most cities operate.” He said he has been in touch with other cities, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Fort Worth, Dallas, Cleveland, New Orleans, New York City, and several others, all of which use similar language to the petition to landmark buildings and sites in their cities.
“This is not a radical idea,” Galer said. “It’s common.”
He said he still supports the “evolution of the city,” and a petition like this will not change the city’s ability to grow and change.
He said that the changes would have been beneficial in instances like the loss of the West Gate building in Kenmore that may have been saved if the language of significance beyond Boston had been removed.
“Residents are desperate to save their history,” Galer said. “I urge you to put Boston’s process on par with the rest of the nation.”
Resident Holly Berry, who said she volunteers with the Fenway CDC, also said that “equity has been first and foremost this past year.”
She said the entire landmarking process should be available in multiple languages to be more inclusive.
“I think it shouldn’t even hurt to have some sort of campaign on this,” she said. “I think more people need to know more about it. It needs to be all-inclusive. As a community member, I’m so pleased to see this proposal.”
Douglas Kelleher of Epsilon Associates said that he is “very familiar” with the Article 85 Demolition Delay process “as well as the current landmarking process,” and wondered how or if the new policy were to be enacted if there would be a transition period.
Bok emphasized that this petition is just a change in legislative language and would not have any affect on the actual process of something becoming landmarked.
“The amendment itself doesn’t change anything about the process; it just changes the standard,” she said. “I think it’s a question for us to discuss.”
If the Council passes the petition, it would then move onto the mayor for approval, and then onto the State House and the Governor for final approval.