Rep. Livingstone’s Bill To Expand Beacon Hill Historic District Clears Another Hurdle

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Livingstone to expand the boundaries of the Beacon Hill Historic District was “reported  favorably out of committee” by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government on Feb. 2.

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 last 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 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  at 200 Cambridge St. in 1965.

The 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.

Rep. Jay Livingstone said during a phone interview on Feb. 2 that he expects the bill would be redirected by the clerk sometime this week to either the Ways and Means Committee, or the Steering and Policy Committee. As the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government previously did, the selected committee would then report it out of committee, either favorably or unfavorably. The bill would subsequently go to the Third Reading Committee, which would determine if it can then proceed to the House floor.

“I want to try to move it along, but getting it to the House floor could take a couple of months,” said Rep. Livingstone, who added that the bill then go through the Senate, and after receiving the approval of both the House and the Senate, it could then reach the desk of Gov. Maura Healey, who could in turn sign it into state law.

“There are a lot of variables,” he said. “I am pleased with all the support from the community regarding this bill. It made all the difference with respect [to the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government’s determination on the bill], and I look forward to pushing it through the legislature this fall.”

Regarding Rep. Livingstone’s bill clearing this latest hurdle, Mark Kiefer, chair of the BHAC, said, “It’s very good news and certainly the result we were hoping for. It’s an important step forward in the evolution of the historic district, and frankly, it corrects what we now know was an oversight when the district was last expanded. It will have important benefits for Beacon Hill and the surrounding community, and it certainly ensures the preservation of historic resources on Cambridge Street.”

Furthermore, Kiefer added, “It will provide a higher standard for new development that proceeds on that side of Cambridge Street and also provides an additional layer of transparency and public-hearing process for the vetting of proposed architectural changes on Cambridge Street, which in turn allows the community input on this critical gateway of Beacon Hill and the West End neighborhoods and for the City of Boston.”

While there are always concerns that historic district legislation could hinder economic development, Kiefer pointed out that Rep. Livingstone’s bill wouldn’t impose any additional burden on property owners, who would be “grandfathered” or “legacied” in and therefore not required to make any retroactive architectural changes to their buildings. The legislation also wouldn’t “preclude” new development in the Beacon Hill Historic District, he said, since the law already provides for infilled buildings and new construction.

“It really just establishes a higher standard for architectural changes and new construction going forward,” said Kiefer.

Regarding the BHAC’s enforcement of fines per this new legislation, Kiefer said, “It just further affirms  and clarifies the enforcement provisions of existing regulations.”

Nicholas Armata, senior preservation planner for the city’s Office of Historic Preservation and BHAC staff, wrote in an email:” If passed, Bill H.4076 will expand the boundaries of The Beacon Hill Architectural District to the property line of Cambridge Street.  This expansion will now place the front facades of all properties lining the south side of Cambridge Street firmly within the Beacon Hill Architectural District. Prior to this bill’s passage, the boundary of the district stopped 40 feet from the curb of the south side of Cambridge Street. It’s important to note that the affected properties will not be required to make immediate changes in order to comply with district standards. Only future changes will require review and approval by the Commission.”

District 8 City Councilor Sharon Durkan said in a statement: “Expanding the historic district 40 feet towards Cambridge Street to cover this edge [there is a 40 foot wide gap in Beacon Hill’s historic district from West Cedar Street to Bowdoin Street] will correctly align the district with the natural boundaries of Beacon Hill, and what we all understand the historic district to truly be.”

Meghan Awe, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board, wrote in an email: “The BHCA is delighted and encouraged that ‘An Act enhancing the Historic Beacon Hill District,’ has been reported favorably out of committee. Thank you to the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government for the thoughtful result. The effort to include all of Beacon Hill within the Historic District has been long awaited and the specific measures in the proposed legislation ensure the historic integrity of the entire neighborhood. The Beacon Hill Civic Association continues to strongly support [the bill] and looks forward to the next steps of legislative process.”

In the BHCA board’s Oct. 24 letter in support of the legislation to Joint Committee co-chairs, Sen. Jacob Oliveira and Rep. Carole Fiola, Awe wrote in part: “The North Slope of Beacon Hill is home to the Vilna Shul, a Center for Jewish Culture and the only immigrant era synagogue remaining in Boston, the Museum of African American History, the African Meeting House, and several sites connected to the Underground Railroad, and was the center of Boston’s early Black community. The inclusion of the 40 [foot] area along Cambridge Street is uniquely important given the cultural, social, and economic historical significance to the neighborhood and City of Boston. This small but significant area is deserving of the commemoration, designation, and protections afforded to the entire rest of the Historic District.”

Likewise, Rob Whitney, the former BHCA board chair who helped former District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok draft the city home-rule petition, which preceded Rep. Livingstone’s pending legislation, wrote in email:  “The last time the Historic District was enlarged was in 1963, when a portion of the North Slope was added.  This bill will help to protect the significant buildings along Cambridge Street, and will complete the almost 70-year process of fully protecting the historic resources and architectural uniqueness of the Beacon Hill neighborhood.”

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