A bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Livingstone to expand the boundaries of the Beacon Hill Historic District garnered the support of several community leaders during a public hearing of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government held on Oct. 17 at the State House.
The proposed legislation (H.4076, “An Act enhancing the Historic Beacon Hill District”), which mirrors a home-rule petition that was passed unanimously by the Boston City Council and then signed by Mayor Michelle Wu earlier this year, would enlarge the district to include all of the North Slope via the addition of an approximately 40-foot-wide area running from Charles Circle to Bowdoin Street along Cambridge Street on the Beacon Hill side not currently isn’t included in the district. This omission apparently came in response to concerns that including the entire North Slope in the Historic District could impede the city’s plans for the Engine Company 4 and Ladder Company 24 fire station, which subsequently opened in 1965 at 200 Cambridge St.
Rep. Livingstone’s bill would also give the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission (BHAC) the specific authority to levy fines for violations of the Historic District’s architectural guidelines for the first time in its history.
“The committee hears bills before acting on them, so I’m pleased at the speed with which the committee has acted to hear this bill,” Rep. Livingstone told this reporter after the hearing.
“The next step is for the committee to give a favorable or unfavorable report on the bill, and I’m working with the committee to answer any questions and address their concerns so this can receive a favorable report,” he said.
Moreover, Rep. Livingstone added, “I’m pleased that the city has passed the home-rule petition, and I’m working with neighborhood activists, the Beacon Hill Civic Association, and city officials to make this law and look forward to this happening.”
District 8 City Councilor Sharon Durkan offered virtual testimony in favor of Rep. Livingstone’s bill at the Joint Committee hearing.
“Expanding the historic district 40 feet towards Cambridge Street to cover this edge will correctly align the district with the natural boundaries of Beacon Hill, and what we all understand the historic district to truly be,” said Councilor Durkan in part. “It is a common-sense adjustment that will make preserving our historic neighborhood a little bit easier and more straightforward.”
Mark Kiefer, chair of the BHAC, described Rep. Livingstone’s bill as something that’s long overdue, after starting as a home-rule petition at the city level before making its way through the state legislature under Rep. Livingstone’s sponsorship.
During his testimony at the Oct. 17 hearing, Kiefer said he sought to reassure members of the committee that this measure wouldn’t “impede or otherwise forestall the ecnomid development on Cambridge Street,” including a couple of small retail buildings on the street that might be ripe for redevelopment opportunities.
“Sometimes, there’s a concern with preservation regulations impede development by freezing an area in time,” Kiefer told this reporter. “That’s not the case here.”
The Enabling Act won’t apply to existing properties in the expanded district, which would be grandfathered in, or “legacied,” said Kiefer, so that property owners wouldn’t be forced to make changes to retroactively conform to the new guidelines.
“But this will provide a higher standard of quality going forward when property owners want to make changes so historic guidelines in regard to quality of workmanship and materials will apply,” said Kiefer.
Another benefit of expanding the district is to preserve “the existing, significant historic resources on Cambridge Street,” said Kiefer, who added that while Cambridge Street lost a number of such resources when the street was widened in the 1920s, “nevertheless a number of buildings of architectural and historic resources still remain.”
Like Kiefer, Nick Armata, a senior planner for Boston Landmarks Commission, as well as BHAC staff, also spoke in favor of the proposed expansion of the district, which was established in 1955 and expanded three times since then ,in 1958, 1963 and 1875, respectively.
Armata added that the Beacon Hill Historic District is “the oldest protected historic district in the Commonwealth and one of the oldest National Register districts in the country.”
Armata testified, ”Although the buildings facing south side of Cambridge Street are currently outside of the district, many of them are no less historic than the buildings in the district.”
Besides the Museum of African American History, Armata said these significant buildings in this area include the Puffers Building at 214 -218 Cambridge St., which he described as “an integral part” of the neighborhood’s cigar-rolling industry throughout the 19th century; 228 Cambridge St., which was an activist organizing hub for the LBGTQ community in mid 20th century; and 310-316 Cambridge St., now home to Harvard Gardens – a “legacy business,” which he said is “deeply rooted in the neighborhood’s history.”
Rob Whitney, past Beacon Hill Civic Assocation board chair who has worked on the proposed expansion of the Beacon Hill Historic District since the idea was first broached several years ago, also spoke in favor of Rep. Livingstone’s bill at the hearing.
“Especially given the significant new development project by Massachusetts General Hospital that began construction recently across Cambridge Street, it is now critically important that the district be fully extended all the way down the North Slope of Beacon Hill to Cambridge Street, so as to bring those historic buildings that remain on the Beacon Hill side of Cambridge Street into the architectural protections afforded by the district and discourage their future demolition,” Whitney said in part.
Likewise, Meghan Awe, the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s current board chair, also spoke at the hearing in favor of expanding the Beacon Hill Historic District.
City Council President Ed Flynn; Vin Cipolla, president and CEO of Historic New England; and the Boston Ward 5 Democratic Committee wrote letters to the Joint Committee in favor of Rep. Livingstone’s bill as well.