A plan to redevelop the site of the Harvard Club of Boston into residential housing might require the creation of the first Planned Development Area (PDA) in the Back Bay Historic District – an idea that doesn’t sit well with some neighbors.
Boston real estate developer Trinity Financial is proposing redeveloping 415 Newbury St. and 374 Newbury St., both of which are currently occupied by the Harvard Club, and an adjacent surface parking lot into two buildings containing a total of 133 residential units: an 11-story building that would house 95 market-rate rental units and athletic amenity space for the Harvard Club, including squash courts; and a smaller three-story building that would accommodate 38 mixed-income condo units for sale, including 20 affordable home-ownership opportunities. The project also includes plans for 125 off-street parking spaces, along with related site and public-realm improvements.
The project was originally intended as a hotel when the proponent began community outreach in July of 2019. But in response to the feedback they received from neighbors who pointed to the pressing need for more affordable home-ownership opportunities in the neighborhood, the project was subsequently changed to residential use in 2020, said Abby Goldenfarb, vice president of Trinity Financial, during a March 30 virtual meeting sponsored by the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Daniel Gelormini, an associate principal with Boston-based CBT Architects, said site improvements related to the project would include relocating the pedestrian passageway from the west side of the site to its east side.
The three-story building would have terraced ground-floor units, said Gelormini, while the structure itself would be set back 5 feet from the property line.
For the 11-story building, the lobby would be set back 7 feet to allow space for green elements and planters, he added.
Eighteen trees would be planted as part of the project, said Gelormini, including 11 in front of the project site and an additional seven trees added further down Newbury Street.
“The goal is to feel more like a residential street than the back-of-house [environment] that exists today,” he said.
Additionally, a planter and framed armature where trees can be planted would sit atop the parking deck, said Gelormini.
Among the community benefits that the project promises is the creation of much-needed affordable housing in the Back Bay, where, according to the city’s 2020 Income Restricted Housing report, there are only six inclusionary home-ownership units, said Goldenfarb.
The project will also deliver $500,000 in additional community benefits for the neighborhood, she said, including $360,000 earmarked for the “greening of Newbury Street.”
But despite the promised community benefits and the applicant’s responsiveness to the community, Sue Prindle, a longtime Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay board member, believes it still wouldn’t offset the potential drawbacks of creating the first PDA in the Back Bay Historic District.
(PDAs are overlay districts for sites of at least one acre that establish special controls for large or complex development projects.)
“I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” said Prindle.
Elliott Laffer, chair of the NABB board, shared her sentiments.
“There’s a lot to like about this project and a lot of work still to be done, but what this project shouldn’t have is a PDA,” he said.
Laffer added that the project would only require a height variance to move forward, and that “should be dealt with at the Board of Appeals process.”
Likewise, Megan Emanuelson, an attorney representing the adjacent building at 375 Newbury St., which is home to the Room & Board furniture store, described the PDA process as “spot zoning” and added that if the city adopted a PDA for this site, it would leave the community with no recourse for challenging the project via variances.
“We would essentially be stuck with whatever the PDA allows,” she said. “This is illegal and would set a bad precedent for the city.”
Emanuelson added that the project “is not suited for this parcel,” and that “this building does not fit and should not be allowed to be built as proposed.”
David Linhart, an attorney for the applicant, countered that they are “aware of the significant concerns with the zoning relief pathway,” and that “feedback from the community would be taken seriously.”
Linhart added that the project isn’t intended to exceed height limits on either side of the project site, which is subject to split zoning, nor would it exceed FAR (Floor Area Ratio) limits.
“We’re taking the Article 80 process to get the design right,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bryan Sweeney, a self-described “foundation engineer,” expressed concern that the larger building in particular would cause settlement issues due to its “disproportionate size.”
Ambrose Donovan, an engineering consultant with Cambridge-based McPhail Associates, responded that not only does the larger building have a basement to help offset settlement issues, but also that the land itself comprises over-consolidated clay deposits that are “well capable of carrying load of this building.”
Sean Regan, an attorney representing the directly abutting Windsor Place condominium building, said the proponent had gone to great lengths to mitigate potential impacts on neighbors and went on record in support of the project.
Asked about the timeframe for the project, Goldenfarb said construction is expected to take around 12 months after the applicant has secured all the permitting and zoning approvals needed from the city.
The public-comment period for this project is open through April 13. Comments can be submitted to Sarah Black, BPDA senior project manager, via email at [email protected], or submitted via the BPDA’s webpage for the project at http://www.bostonplans.org/projects/development-projects/415-newbury-street.